Cubs

This is what Starlin Castro has been waiting for with Cubs

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This is what Starlin Castro has been waiting for with Cubs

Starlin Castro believes the last five years made him a stronger person and a better player.

Wrigley Field is a place that chews people up and spits them out, but it’s also pretty sweet when the Cubs get rolling. This looks like it could be a block party through the summer, with Castro right in the middle of it all.

Castro has been the lightning rod for five fifth-place teams, so he’s going to enjoy nights like Tuesday, when the Cubs wore down the Pittsburgh Pirates during a 6-2 victory, nearing the end of April with a 12-7 record and a growing sense of confidence.

“Now, I’m starting to know my talent,” said Castro, who went 3-for-5 with an RBI, a stolen base and two runs scored. “I’m starting to know everything that I can do on the field.

“That’s the moment that I waited for all my life.”

Castro is only 25, a three-time All-Star shortstop with his prime years still in front of him, locked into a reasonable contract that could run through the 2020 season. That usually got lost amid all the Twitter freak-outs, media takedowns and trade rumors.

[MORE: Cubs keeping an eye on Almora, Baez]

Castro appears to be raising his game on a contending team that’s already creating some national buzz. He’s batting .342, showing the swagger and unbelievable hand-eye coordination that made him the National League’s 2011 hits leader.

“I have not been here before, but I hear different people, what they say,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Right now, he is engaged, man. He is engaged in every pitch, offensively and defensively.

“He’s totally invested right now. It’s really fun to watch.”

Look, Castro always played hard, worked on his defense and wanted to be in the lineup for all 162 games. He’s slammed enough helmets to show how much he cares. It’s just that the zoning-out moments always seemed to go viral.

Would you be locked in all the time if your franchise decided to write off multiple major-league seasons? Castro seems to be energized by playing alongside the prospects everyone had been talking about: Addison Russell, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler.

Castro “Respected 90” leading off the second inning, smashing a ball toward Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer, signaling safe after running through first base and beating the throw for an infield single (after a replay review).

Castro then went first-to-third on Junior Lake’s single up the middle and that hustle sparked a three-run rally. A deep lineup eventually knocked out Pirates lefty Jeff Locke in the fourth inning after forcing the 2013 All-Star to throw 86 pitches.

“If you win, everything’s easier,” Castro said. “We’ll be together. We tried really hard to get better every year. I think now we got the people that we want. We got the people that everybody was waiting for to be here with us.

“It’s awesome. You got all nine hitters to protect you. They have to pitch to you, because they got another good one behind you. It’s easier to hit like that.”

It’s also easier inside a clubhouse with an established veteran presence, where Castro and All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo don’t have to be the daily focus.

“We just go out and play,” Rizzo said. “We answer the questions we need to answer, but it’s all about winning games now. Nothing else matters.”

[MORE: Maddon, Cubs preaching patience on Jorge Soler]

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein doesn’t believe anyone is untouchable – and he will eventually have to answer the long-term question at shortstop – but he’s also been one of Castro’s biggest defenders.

“I’ve always thought Starlin was a really, really good player,” Epstein said. “His defense, I think, took a big step forward last year and he’s carried it over into this year. He gets a chance to hide a little bit in the lineup now. He doesn’t have to be the focal point for the opposition. He’s playing really good baseball on both sides. I’m proud of him.”

Castro did bobble the ball trying to make a backhanded play in the third inning, committing his third error this season. But that doesn’t mean Russell should move over from second base tomorrow. Castro also made a diving stop in the fifth inning, lunging to his right and catching a line drive to steal a base hit from Francisco Cervelli.

“He’s been really good,” Maddon said. “I saw him in spring training. Obviously, he did not play that well at shortstop. I think part of it was we – I – challenged him to win a Gold Glove this year. And he might have been pressing or pushing to fulfill that thought and didn’t exactly know how to do it.

“Him and ‘Jonesy’ (third-base coach Gary Jones) have been working really hard at simplifying his approach, coming to get the ball, not laying back, pretty much taking charge of reading hops and playing through the ball better. Simple stuff. But if you’re not doing it, then the residue is normally not anything good.”

Castro also sprinted for an infield single in the eighth inning – and moments later got thrown out trying to steal second base – but Maddon wants an environment where his players aren’t afraid to make mistakes.

“It’s really been fun to watch (Castro),” Maddon said. “Totally animated. When he is in a position to do something to help us and does not, he’s really upset with himself. I don’t want him to do that too often. I don’t like when a guy beats himself up too hard. But he’s really holding himself to a high level of accountability right now, personally.

“With regards to (his teammates), especially young Latin players, his interaction with them is really taking on the form of veteran leadership. So right now, I can’t say enough good things about the guy. I’ve been really impressed.”

Standing at his locker after the game, Castro put on a black Air Jordan hat and turned around to face the media. He listened to a question about his fifth manager in six seasons.

“You need a guy that trusts your talent and lets you play,” Castro said. “That’s the thing that Joe did. They trust us. They know what we can do. That’s the most (important thing): Let me play and I can play hard for you every day.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.