Bears

Why Starlin Castro is the building block for Theo Epstein

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Why Starlin Castro is the building block for Theo Epstein

Every time Starlin Castro makes a mental mistake, it seems to become an instant referendum on his future, like he should be traded tomorrow.

Theres also the runaway hype. Even Hall of Famer Ernie Banks had this reaction when Castro was named to the All-Star team last summer: Hes better than me.

Lets settle at the midpoint: Castro wont be Mr. Cub or an ex-Cub anytime soon.

On Friday, Bobby Valentine will be exactly where Cubs people thought he wanted to be when he blasted Castro on television last season from the ESPN broadcast booth in the Wrigley Field dugout.

Except Valentine will be managing the Boston Red Sox.

That Bobby V moment came up when Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer interviewed Dale Sveum last fall: As a manager, how do you keep your shortstops head in the game?

As Epstein begins dismantling this team and bringing in his own players, while Cubs ownership tries to copy the Red Sox model, the thing to do is wondering whether Castro can be a player to build around, when the answer is obvious.

Remember that the 22-year-old shortstop is younger than top prospects Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson and appears to be on his way to his third .300 season in the big leagues.

Youth sometimes holds this back, Sveum said, but its just a matter of making him understand that hes got to make people around him better all the time. You only do that one way by work ethic, trying to be a leader on a consistent basis on the field.

When Epstein fired hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo this week, citing a new message of selective aggressiveness and more plate discipline, the natural follow-up question involved how Castro would fit into The Cubs Way.

Were not trying to cookie cutter our hitters, Epstein said. Usually, hitters are sort of naturally patient or naturally aggressive and its hard to necessarily change that, especially at the big-league level. I think most of that is hard wiring. Thats just an innate quality that youre born with or develop.

(It) may be more (telling) in Little League the type of hitter youre going to be than (what) you do in the big leagues. But we spend an awful lot of time trying to make some progress on that front and try to teach the right approach in the minor leagues and that doesnt stop in the big leagues.

Castro has walked only six times this season, posting a .308 on-base percentage thats nowhere near what the front office expects it to be in the future.

Starlin is an aggressive hitter, Epstein said. You tend to see hitters develop some patience naturally as they get more experience at the big-league level. So hes a very accomplished hitter, but hes still relatively inexperienced. Theres a good chance that youre going to see his on-base totals continue to increase as he works toward his prime.

Most players his age are in Double-A trying to figure out how to get on base against Double-A pitching, and hes doing it in the big leagues. Hes always going to be an aggressive hitter, but I think as he develops more power, and I think that will happen, pitchers will be more careful with him and then hell adjust back and be a little more patient.

Sveum appeared to be running out of patience when Castro forgot how many outs there were on June 4 in San Francisco. But the manager didnt bench his best player.

Its the nature of playing nine innings for 162 games, Sveum said. Theres going to be some mental breakdowns with everybody.

We magnify a lot of things that other veterans do throughout the league, too. Just watch SportsCenter and you see a lot of veterans sometimes do a lot worse things than Castros done.

There are really only two ways to view this Cubs season, from an altitude of 10,000 feet or under the microscope.

Take a moment from last Sunday at Target Field. Castro watched a groundball bounce off his glove. Instead of giving up on the play, he pounced on the ball in the outfield grass.

The throw wasnt a straight rocket Castro looked more like Joe Montana rolling right but it dropped right into catcher Koyie Hills glove and nailed Minnesotas Trevor Plouffe at home plate.

Pitcher Ryan Dempster watched the play unfold.

As soon as the ball got away from him, he hustled right after it, Dempster said. He made a really unbelievable throw if you look at it, from his back foot, throwing a strike to home plate. Thats the kind of ability he has, and I think thats why people harp on him so much about his attention out there on the field, because his ability to not only do it at the plate, (but) out in the field as well.

He has a chance to be a really, really special player.

Theres no doubt Epstein understands how rare it is to have an elite shortstop. After trading Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs in a four-team deal on July 31, 2004, the Red Sox won their forever World Series with Orlando Cabrera.

Between 2005 and 2012, the Red Sox used six different shortstops on Opening Day Edgar Renteria, Alex Gonzalez, Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie, Marco Scutaro, Mike Aviles and traded away Hanley Ramirez in the Josh Beckett-Mike Lowell deal.

You shouldnt discount the mental toughness it took to get here this fast. With Epstein and Valentine watching, know that Castro plans to keep coming back stronger.

Exactly, thats what I do, Castro said. Right now, if something happens, I dont get frustrated in my head. If youre thinking about it too much, maybe the next play youre supposed to make (you) make an error. So I keep my head up.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”