Cubs

Cubs: Starlin Castro refuses to put his head down after benching

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Cubs: Starlin Castro refuses to put his head down after benching

Starlin Castro is in uncharted waters.

The 25-year-old has never been anything but a starter in his baseball career, but now he finds himself on the outside looking in at Joe Maddon's lineup.

[RELATED - Starlin Castro the odd man out of Joe Maddon's lineup]

"This is the first time [I've been in this situation]," Castro said. "But I will never put my head down. I know the talent that I have. I know the player that I am."

Castro is hitting just .236 with a .575 OPS, which ranks last among Major League Baseball shortstops and fourth-worst among all qualified players. FanGraphs rates his WAR at -0.8.

The Cubs are going for it this season, led by Maddon's "mad scientist" approach and as the Dog Days of August hits, it's about results, not worrying about people's feelings or development.

Which is why Maddon filled out a lineup two days in a row against the San Francisco Giants with Addison Russell at shortstop, Chris Coghlan at second base, Kyle Schwarber in left field and Castro on the bench.

"I feel a little frustrated, especially [Friday] when they told me," Castro said. "In the beginning, I took it really personal, but after that, I thought about it and I understand you have to put those guys in there every day. They're really hot right now.

"Whatever I can do for the team to win."

And the Cubs are winning, going 8-1 in their last nine games, including the first two against the Giants, who were a half-game up on the Cubs in the NL wild card standings entering the four-game series at Wrigley Field.

[MORE - Maddon pushing all the right buttons as Cubs keep winning]

Entering play Saturday, the Cubs (60-48) were 12 games above .500 for the first time since 2008 and Castro admitted it's easier to swallow his benching when the team is doing so well.

Castro was a career .284 hitter with a .735 OPS before this season, earning three All-Star Game appearances and is just 57 hits shy of 1,000 for his career.

But he hasn't found a rhythm at the plate at all this season, even after hitting .325 in April and looking energized playing on a winning team. Since May 2, Castro is hitting .210 with a .524 OPS.

"I don't feel pressure at the plate," Castro said. "Joe told me something was going to have to happen. I didn't know if it was me or somebody else [going to the bench].

"We're here for the team. They know what can make the team better."

Maddon understands Castro's frustration, but he and the Cubs are just hoping to get the 25-year-old back on track.

"I expect [frustration]," Maddon said. "There's no other way to evaluate that. I would be frustrated, too, from his side. But I thought he was very professional about it.

"We gotta get him right. We'll still work him back in there. Like I talked about [Friday], nothing has changed. I really like the kid a lot and we'll try to get him back on his feet."

Russell has impressed defensively at shortstop, making a seamless transition to the other side of the infield from second base. But he's also unsure of how things will play out moving forward.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

"Really, I don't know what's going on," Russell said. "All I know is [Castro] is a good teammate and he picks me up whenever I'm down, so that's all I can say."

Castro said he and Russell talk on a daily basis and both players continue to stress the importance of putting the team first.

For his part, Castro is focusing on getting his confidence back at the plate.

"My talent hasn't gone anywhere," he said.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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KELLY CRULL

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.