Starlin Castro

Imagine Chris Archer playing for a big-market team like the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Imagine Chris Archer playing for a big-market team like the Cubs

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Picture Chris Archer performing with Wrigley Field as the backdrop – the one Joe Maddon compared to a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator” – instead of a dumpy building off Interstate 275.      

Archer could see, feel and hear the Cubs fans who took over Tropicana Field on Tuesday night, a crowd of 25,046 saluting Maddon and watching the defending World Series champs play a sharp all-around game in a 2-1 win over a Tampa Bay Rays team that has a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs now.  

“It’s weird,” Archer said after the tough-luck loss, comparing the scene to last week’s games relocated to New York in the wake of Hurricane Irma. “I didn’t know we had that many people from Chicago, Illinois, Midwest area, in Tampa, but I guess we do. It was just weird for their players to come out and get announced and get so much love. It was strange.

“It felt like we were in Citi Field playing the Yankees, honestly. I’m not being critical. It was just crazy how much royal blue there was out there. When Willson Contreras went out there to warm up the pitcher, he had a standing O.

“I’ve been here for however long – and seen some really good players come – and I’ve never seen anybody get as much love (as they did when) they ran out of the dugout to warm up.

“It was just kind of crazy.”  

Archer pitched in the Before Theo farm system, at a time when the Cubs were scrambling to try to pry their window to contend back open after winning back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. Maddon became the beneficiary when the Cubs packaged Archer – who had 13 Double-A starts on his resume at that point – in the blockbuster Matt Garza trade in January 2011.

Archer, who worked last year’s World Series as an ESPN analyst, has pitched in only two playoff games, making two relief appearances out of Maddon’s bullpen when the Boston Red Sox handled the Rays during a 2013 first-round series.   

Archer lost 19 games last season while putting up a 4.02 ERA and 200-plus innings. He earned his second All-Star selection this year and will turn 29 later this month. Wonder what the good-but-not-great numbers in 2017 – 9-11, 4.02 ERA, 32 starts, 241 strikeouts – would look like on a contender.       

“He is among the elite pitchers, there’s no question about that,” Maddon said. “I don’t watch him enough to know when he goes into these bad moments what exactly is going on. (And) I don’t even know how much certain years luck plays into it or not.

“But the thing about him in a big-city market that would intrigue me is him. He’s really bright. And he’s very socially engaged. For him to be in more of an urban kind of a setting with a greater audience, he could make quite an impact.”

Archer is locked into a team-friendly contract that will pay him roughly $14 million in 2018 and 2019 combined, plus the Rays hold bargain club options for 2020 ($9 million) and 2021 ($11 million). Meaning it would take an unbelievable offer just to get Tampa Bay’s attention.

Archer is also a face of the franchise, a two-time Roberto Clemente Award nominee who visits young men and women in the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center and stays involved with Major League Baseball’s RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).

“Beyond being a pitcher who is very, very good, I would be curious if he was in a larger situation,” said Maddon, who has an offseason home and a restaurant in Tampa and sat with Archer during a Buccaneers game last season. “Just because socially, in a community, he’s already done it here. But you put him in a large city with more of an urban situation – he could really be impactful in that city. He’s really engaging when he speaks. He’s very bright. He’s really well-thought-out.”

Archer has come a long way from the Mark DeRosa salary-dump trade with the Cleveland Indians on New Year’s Eve 2008. Stan Zielinski, the beloved scout who died in January, lobbied then-general manager Jim Hendry, insisting the Cubs shouldn’t do the deal without Archer, a Class-A pitcher who went 4-8 with a 4.29 ERA that season.

While closing the Garza deal, the Rays actually pushed for another pitching prospect, but the Cubs wanted to hold onto Trey McNutt. Other players bundled in that trade became useful major-league pieces (Brandon Guyer, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld), but the headliner was supposed to be Hak-Ju Lee, a South Korean shortstop already blocked by Starlin Castro who never made it to the big leagues.    

“There was a lot of good players that came the Rays’ way at that time,” Maddon said. “I didn’t know what to expect (from Archer). I saw him in camp. Great arm. Didn’t really have a good feel for command at that time.

“But when you talked to the kid, you couldn’t help but really like him a lot. He and I connected on more of an intellectual level regarding books and stuff, because he’s really well-read. He’s a lot smarter than I’ll ever be. I’ve always enjoyed my conversations with him. And then all of a sudden, he started finding the plate. And that slider’s electric.”

Maddon has already seen what the Cubs brand and Chicago platform can do for his baseball legacy, bank account and off-the-field interests.

Do you want Archer back?

“I didn’t say that,” Maddon said. “That’s something I cannot (say).”

The last time the Cubs faced Homer Bailey, Anthony Rizzo became the face of the franchise

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AP

The last time the Cubs faced Homer Bailey, Anthony Rizzo became the face of the franchise

How's this for a #WayBackWednesday?

Homer Bailey — the Cincinnati Reds' starting pitcher Wednesday night — has dealt with arm injuries the last few years, meaning the last time he faced the Cubs was July 10, 2014.

The only holdover from that lineup three years ago is Anthony Rizzo:

The full lineup:

1. Chris Coghlan - LF
2. Arismendy Alcantara - 2B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Starlin Castro - SS
5. Luis Valbuena - 3B
6. Ryan Sweeney - CF
7. Nate Schierholtz - RF
8. John Baker - C
9. Kyle Hendricks - P

Yep, that was Mr. Hendricks' MLB debut. He gave up four runs in six innings before a bullpen combination of James Russell, Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez, Hector Rondon and Blake Parker shut down the Reds to give the Cubs a 6-4 victory in 12 innings.

But that's not all. 

That was the same day Anthony Rizzo tried to take on the entire Reds roster after Aroldis Chapman struck out Schierholtz with a 103 mph pitch close to his head:

Rizzo emerged as a leader that day, willing to take on an entire team to back his own roster and stick up for his guys. That was the year before the Cubs made the playoffs and to that point, Rizzo had only been a part of losing teams. But he put the Cubs on his back starting that fateful day in Cincinnati, the last time Bailey faced the Cubs.

Alcantara — who is now in the Reds system and was just outrighted to Double-A this week — had four hits and drove in three runs in that game while Valbuena drove in the winning runs with a two-out triple in the top of the 12th. The Cubs finished 73-89 in 2014 under Ricky Renteria, who got a World Series ring from the Cubs last month for all the work he did in 2014.

Since that day, the Cubs have ended their championship drought (obviously) thanks in part to Chapman and Rizzo has become the unquestioned face of the franchise and one of the top players in baseball.

Starlin Castro is fulfilling his potential as a star in New York

Starlin Castro is fulfilling his potential as a star in New York

Starlin Castro didn't get a World Series ring last month, watching as two of his current teammates — Aroldis Chapman and Adam Warren — each accepted their jewelry from the Cubs.

Castro's return to Chicago's North Side was somewhat muted/overshadowed by Chapman's return, but make no mistake, it was absolutely a signature moment in both Cubs franchise history and Castro's own personal story arc.

It's only been a year and a half since the Cubs dealt Castro to the Yankees to clear room for Ben Zobrist and help transform the eventual World Series-winning lineup.

Clearly, it had to be difficult for Castro to watch all his former teammates win it all immediately after he traded Chicago pinstripes for New York pinstripes. But Castro's career has absolutely taken off since that move.

In 211 games with the Yankees, Castro is hitting .287 with a .781 OPS, a tick above the .281 average and .725 OPS he posted in six season with the Cubs.

He set a new career high with 21 homers in 2016 and looks well on his way to surpass that in 2017 with 12 longballs through the first 60 games. He's gone deep in three straight games, putting him on pace for 32 homers.

After a huge weekend series and currently riding a six-game hitting streak, here is the season Castro is on pace for in his age-27 season:

.325 AVG
.360 OBP
.531 SLG
.891 OPS
213 hits
124 runs
32 doubles
3 triples
32 homers
111 RBI

To put that in perspective, Castro would be the Cubs team leader in nearly every category if he was still in Chicago. Kris Bryant has more doubles, homers, a higher on-base percentage and OPS, but Castro has 20 more hits and 14 more RBI than Bryant and his slugging percentage is only one point lower than the reigning NL MVP's.

You have to take into account the team factor, of course. The Yankees have been one of baseball's biggest surprises this season and entered play Monday with the most runs in the game while the Cubs sit at .500 entering play Monday against New York's other team (the Mets).

But Castro has been a huge part of the Yankees' success, spending almost half his time (29 games) in the cleanup spot in the order, providing protection for phenom Aaron Judge.

[RELATED - Anthony Rizzo's zigging while the rest of the MLB zags]

So what's changed with the former face of the Cubs? How has he developed into one of the game's best hitters through the first two-and-a-half months of the season?

"I’ve gotten more comfortable here, and it feels very natural,” Castro said over the weekend, according to the NY Post. “I just have done some different things in my approach. I just go out there and try not to chase too many pitches, and just wait on the pitches that I can hit. 

"It’s not gonna be perfect all the time. You’re gonna chase sometimes, but the less you chase, the more you create opportunities for pitches that you can hit.

“I don’t try and do too much up there. I don’t go up there trying to hit a home run every at-bat. I try to stay close, and to the middle of the field, and keep the same approach every at-bat.”

Not bad for a guy who was called a "hit-chaser" at one point in his Cubs career.