Cubs

Cubs: Starlin Castro making a case to stay at shortstop

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Cubs: Starlin Castro making a case to stay at shortstop

PITTSBURGH – The Addison Russell news hadn’t broken yet when Starlin Castro stood in front of his locker late Monday night and spoke with reporters inside PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse.

But it’s clear a three-time All-Star won’t give up his position without a fight. One of his goals this year is to win a Gold Glove.  

“I have good talent to be a good shortstop,” Castro said after a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I don’t want to be no joke anymore.”

Manager Joe Maddon and winning pitcher Jake Arrieta both went out of their way to praise Castro, who made a diving stop to his left in the first inning and threw out Pittsburgh leadoff guy Josh Harrison, reminding you that he can still elevate his game.

[SHOP: Buy a Starlin Castro jersey]

“I saw something out of him tonight that I hadn’t seen in awhile,” Arrieta said. “He seemed to have more of an aggressive nature about him tonight. He was fluid. Just tremendous at short.”  

Maybe there’s something to not playing on a fifth-place team. Maddon and his coaches have also challenged Castro to incorporate more defensive work into his pregame routine and get into attack mode.

“(Be) aggressive on every ball,” Castro explained. “Sometimes, the errors that I’ve made (in the past have come) because I don’t have the confidence and stay back with the ball. Now, I’ll be aggressive and challenge the ball.”

[MORE: Cubs calling up Addison Russell marking another aggressive move]

Maddon is the fifth manager in six seasons for Castro, who doesn’t have to be such a daily focus now on a team with bigger names and hotter prospects.

There’s also something to be said for knowing who’s in charge. Whether or not Castro stays at shortstop and Russell transitions to second base, there are ways for the Cubs to make those pieces fit together.

“I feel different,” Castro said. “That’s the most important thing – the confidence that the manager gives to us. That’s the best way that you learn your talent is (coming together). Don’t think about anything. Just go out there and play. And we’re having fun.”

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.”