Bears

Next stop All-Star Game: Starlin Castro doesnt have any plans to slow down

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Next stop All-Star Game: Starlin Castro doesnt have any plans to slow down

NEW YORK By Friday afternoon, Starlin Castro hadnt finalized his travel plans for the All-Star Game.

But the Cubs shortstop, along with teammate Bryan LaHair, was trying to hop on a private jet with New York Mets David Wright and R.A. Dickey and fly to Kansas City on Sunday night.

No doubt, thats better than going commercial.

Last year, Castro and then-manager Mike Quade had their flight out of Pittsburgh canceled, which was supposed to take them to Charlotte, N.C., for the connection to Phoenix. On the way home, Quade was also detained by TSA at Sky Harbor International Airport. You didnt have to look very hard to find the symbolism in all that.

Theres also something to Castro traveling Entourage-style to Kansas City, where he will meet his parents and brothers and sisters for what he hopes will become an annual family reunion. Hes a little more comfortable with the idea of being around the best players in the world.

Im going to try to be there every year, Castro said. Next year I want to be the starter. Thats what I want. Its good to be in the All-Star Game, but I want to be a starter one day.

Less than 24 hours after Dale Sveum said he couldnt afford to take Castro out of the lineup, the manager (sort of) gave him Friday off, which made it seem like a good time to assess where the Cubs are at with their franchise shortstop.

Castro was supposed to be the last player in the National League to sit out a game this season. Heading into Game 83, he had played in 714 out of 719 innings. He didnt think he needed the day off he came on in the seventh inning and has no plans of slowing down.

At the age of 22, Castro already has two .300 seasons on his big-league resume. He began the day 2-for-16 on this road trip, watching his average drop to .287.

I feel good at the home plate I hit the ball hard the last six, seven games, Castro said. I dont feel like Im lost at the home plate or something like that. I feel good. I feel (the way I did) my last two years. Its supposed to come back. Its not going to stay like that for a long time. For sure, I know that.

Castro signed with the organization as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, and needed less than 1,000 at-bats in the minor leagues before rocketing through the system. He has never lacked for drive or confidence.

Castro has drawn only 12 walks this season, but six have come within the past two weeks. The Cubs are waiting for more power (six homers) to emerge, and he will have to improve the on-base percentage (.312).

But for all the talk about whos untouchable and whos not, Theo Epstein has made it clear that Castro is a player you build around. Even if he wasnt assembled out of a Red Sox Way manual or wont be nicknamed The Greek God of Walks (like Kevin Youkilis).

(Castro) hasnt completely found his groove overall offensively this year, Epstein said recently. So when youre searching to get locked in, if youre not a naturally patient hitter anyway, it can be hard to be selective and not do more than you can.

With any 22-year-old, you start to get riled up. (But) if you take a step back, and look at the age and understand and close your eyes, (you) say: Whats this guy going to be like when hes 27?

Thats exactly the point, which is hard to make when theres so much airtime and bandwidth to fill.

No, Sveum said, he still hasnt seen any 10s yet from Castros practice sessions, and the manager admits the overall approach is still not right where you want it.

But the quantity is (there) theres no question about that, Sveum said. Hes doing all the work, as much as he possibly can, during the batting practice times. Hes doing every facet, turning double plays, throwing to first, doing the pivot. His work ethic is fine.

Sometimes he gets a little lax, and theres nothing wrong with having a little fun, too, once in awhile. You dont have to be dead serious all the time. Its a long season, as long as everythings mechanically working correctly in the game, then youll give him a little leeway sometimes.

Thats the battle with Castro, whos so naturally gifted with a rocket arm and the speed and the presence to track down balls in the outfield and into foul territory.

Castro has also completely embraced the defensive shifts and positioning pushed by this new coaching staff. Second baseman Darwin Barney has seen the improvement up close.

Its the routine plays defensively, Barney said. Hes cleaned that up a lot and has taken a lot of pride in that. He obviously brings a lot of the same things to the plate that he always has, (and he) wants to be a full, well-rounded player.

Hes only 22, and hes still in that growing process, and its kind of scary.

This is the question to remember with Castro: Where were you when you were 22?

I was playing in like Peoria, Barney said. (So) its pretty surreal to see where hes come from and where hes at. Its fun to watch.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?