Cubs

Starlin Castro focused on winning now – not his future with Cubs

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Starlin Castro focused on winning now – not his future with Cubs

PHILADELPHIA – Starlin Castro waited long enough for this that he’s not going to worry about the future, what position he might play or where the Cubs could trade him this winter. 

After being a lightning rod for five fifth-place teams – and playing for his fifth manager in six seasons – Castro doesn’t need to be the center of attention or see his image opposite Derek Jeter on a billboard again.

Castro is going to appreciate the ride on a playoff contender – and not try to predict which teams could use a three-time All-Star shortstop who will be 26 years old next season.  

“I don’t really think about this,” Castro said. “I don’t really put that kind of thing in my mind. Whatever they decide…if it happens, it happens.

“I don’t really (make) this about me right now. Just enjoy the moment. And (whenever) I get my opportunity, I try to do my job. That’s all we care about right now.”

[MORE: Ready or not, Cubs will find out if bullpen is built for October]

The Cubs left Citizens Bank Park after Sunday’s 7-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies with their playoff probability still hovering near 100 percent on the computer simulations.

Up next: Four games in three days against the Pittsburgh Pirates beginning with Tuesday’s doubleheader at PNC Park. Right now: Having something to play for is more important to Castro than having a guaranteed spot in the lineup. 

“It’s awesome,” Castro said. “That’s the moment that we were always talking about, what we were always thinking about in years before when the team was really bad and we weren’t winning games. We were always in last place. Now, we’re coming with different emotion.

“We’re having fun. Whatever day that you get out there, you just try to play hard and help your team to win.”

Theo Epstein’s front office – a group that doesn’t like to sell low and has publicly backed Castro in the past – can figure out what to do with the four years and $38 million left on his contract later.

“I am back on track,” Castro said. “You’ll see a lot of good things from me right now. I feel locked in.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Castro has accepted his role as a part-time player, hitting .360 (27-for-75) since the Cubs made Addison Russell their franchise shortstop and showing why he still has value.

“He’s handled it well the whole time,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who had been put front and center next to Castro in this rebuild. “He’s a competitor. He wants to win. He knows what’s at stake here.”

This is the team concept Joe Maddon pushed since spring training, using matchups to build his lineups each day, pulling his starting pitchers early when necessary and staying away from traditionally defined roles in the bullpen, leaving little room for egos.

“We’re together,” Castro said. “We push for everyone. I don’t push for myself only. I don’t push for Latin (players) only. I push for all (my teammates). I push for (the whole team), because we want to win.

“We come in here, and we’re having fun. We’re jumping around. One goal. It’s play baseball and keep winning.

“This is an awesome time right now. And I think we got this.”

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.”