Cubs

Cubs lineup revolves around Starlin Castro

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Cubs lineup revolves around Starlin Castro

Thursday, April 21, 2011Posted: 7:42 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Starlin Castro slammed his helmet to the ground as he turned at first base.

With two outs and two runners on, Castro had just hammered Aaron Harangs first-pitch, 91 mph fastball. Castro watched Cameron Maybin diving to make the catch in center, sliding flat on his stomach onto the warning track at Wrigley Field.

Yes, it was a sign of frustration in Wednesdays 5-4 loss to the San Diego Padres. But that fifth-inning moment also showed you that Castro isnt just along for the ride or happy to be here.

Castros senses hadnt been dulled by Game 2 of a double header. This was his first time in the No. 3 spot and he would finish the night batting .375, which ranked fourth in the National League. Theres no doubt that his reflex is to want more.

Hes going to (be) exceptional, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. Castros a good enough offensive player that down the road he can hit anywhere in the lineup.

Thats exactly where all this is heading. About a month after his 21st birthday, and less than two years removed from Class-A ball, Castro already has nine multi-hit games this season and a real understanding of what he wants out of each at-bat.

The 9-9 Cubs have scored more than five runs only four times so far this season. Part of that can be rationalized by playing in Chicago in April. But deep down they know that theyll be playing many low-scoring, one-run games across the next five-plus months.

The Cubs entered Thursdays off-day at second in the NL in average (.277); sixth in on-base percentage (.331); and tied for eighth in runs scored (74) and homers (14). But they ranked near the bottom of the league in hitting with runners in scoring position (.222).

To maximize Castros value, there will be calls to make Castro the permanent No. 3 hitter.

Lou Piniella grew tired of the daily lineup questions, but manager Mike Quade plays along. Even Quades brother recently asked him if the Cubs will settle on one grouping.

The whole lineup thing is evolving, Quade said. I dont see anything being set. Left-handers versus right-handers were a different club. The one-two-three hole could be musical chairs given who I have in the lineup that particular day.

Marlon Byrd has been batting third and its likely that Quade will continue to give him at-bats there. Byrds hitting .267 and has gone 4-for-22 with runners in scoring position, though his average was at .391 just last week.

Now that Kosuke Fukudomes hamstring has healed and because hes getting on base 50 percent of the time he remains a viable leadoff option. So is Jeff Baker against left-handed pitching. The prototypical leadoff hitter is baseballs endangered species.

The person that everybody wants to keep hammering about doesnt exist too often, Hendry said. You just do the best you can. Mikes done a good job with mixing and matching and certainly the guys in the middle of the infield have done extremely well.

In spring training Quade said that he didnt want to overload his young shortstop with leadoff responsibilities, but that didnt last beyond the seasons first weekend.

Castro has gone 19-for-41 (.463) at the top of the order. Second baseman Darwin Barney has emerged as an ideal No. 2 hitter because of his instincts and ability to handle the bat.

Barneys hitting .317 (13-for-41) with five runs, four walks, three doubles, one triple and five RBI in his last 10 games.

Were just trying to see pitches (and) feed off each other, Barney said. I try to move (Castro) around. Hes on base every time. (Lets) see if we can make things happen.

These are only snapshots. Alfonso Soriano leads the team in homers (six) and RBI (14). He feels his knees are strong again and credits his nonstop work with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo.

My mind is so clear now, Soriano said. I know what I want to do.

Aramis Ramirez hasnt hit for power yet, but hes healthy, motivated and seeing the ball well (.403 on-base percentage). Tyler Colvin (.136 average) has been pressing, and Carlos Pena is still waiting for his first home run in a Cubs uniform.

Hendry promises that the veterans will get better because their baseball card will tell you they will.

Thats wide open for Castro. The Cubs cant wait to watch their homegrown shortstop pile up numbers across the next decade.

Soon enough everyone will forget about the lineup questions and start wondering which pieces the Cubs need to build around Castro.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”