Cubs

Are Cubs trying to phase out Starlin Castro as everyday shortstop?

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Are Cubs trying to phase out Starlin Castro as everyday shortstop?

PITTSBURGH — Are the Cubs discussing scenarios where Starlin Castro isn’t the everyday shortstop anymore?

Manager Joe Maddon wouldn’t answer that question directly, filibustering during his media session before Wednesday’s 7-5 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

But that might as well be a “yes” when the Cubs have Addison Russell playing to Castro’s left, Javier Baez tearing it up at Triple-A Iowa and dominoes that will start falling once Miguel Montero becomes part of a three-catcher rotation again.

Maddon pointed to Castro’s two RBI doubles in Tuesday’s 5-0 win over the Pirates, looking for any signs of a hot streak from an All-Star talent with a .578 OPS that ranked 156th out of the 159 big-league players qualified for batting titles.

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“I like what he’s doing,” Maddon said. “That game last night illustrates what he can look like on a nightly basis. Again, we talk about a lot of different things, but that’s the kind of game I believe he’s capable of on a real consistent basis.

“I know I have not been around here long enough and people get frustrated. But I see a 25-year-old shortstop with a lot of ability.”

Phasing out Castro doesn’t have to be anything as dramatic as the trades Theo Epstein’s front office explored leading up to the July 31 deadline. (What used to be seen as a team-friendly contract — which guarantees Castro four years and $38 million after this season — has become problematic.)

Maddon keeps talking about how he wants to maximize matchups, gains edges anywhere he can and keep players fresh throughout the marathon season.

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“Just come in here every day to try to show them something,” Castro said. “I have talent, and I’ve done it before. Just keep positive and keep fighting.”

The Cubs want Kyle Schwarber’s bat in the lineup and have essentially ruled out the idea of the rookie catching Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta. Assuming his sprained left thumb feels good enough, Montero could be cleared to play this weekend at Wrigley Field against the San Francisco Giants, the defending World Series champions.

If Schwarber takes over in left field, that means Chris Coghlan can give Kris Bryant a break from third base — particularly if a flyball pitcher is on the mound — or free up Russell to move from second base to shortstop.

Again, so much of this depends on the opponent and what the numbers say. These variables should impact Jorge Soler, who isn’t hitting for power now and doesn’t look all that smooth in right field. The Cubs will also get a chance to use a designated hitter against the White Sox on the South Side (Aug. 14-16).

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Maddon doesn’t want anyone caught off-guard — or finding out through the media — and will keep running through the options with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.

“We’ll sit down and figure it out,” Maddon said. “We’ve already had like back-and-forth suggestions. That will be the final discussion when we get back home. They know what I’m thinking. I don’t really necessarily know what they’re thinking.”

This isn’t personal with Castro, who enjoys playing for Maddon and insists he can turn his entire season around with one great month. It’s just that the Cubs have something to play for now and can’t write everything off as building for the future.

“Everybody’s going to look at his batting average (.238), and I understand that,” Maddon said. “But he’s almost close to 50 RBIs (46) right now, and he’s gotten some really big hits for us.

“The thing I’m most impressed with is I didn’t know he was this good on defense. He’s made some real elementary mistakes, absolutely. But he’s made some really good plays, too. I still look at his birth certificate.

“Everybody talks about his hitting. (But) he’s capable of a lot out there. We just got to pull it out of him.”

It looks like rough times are ahead for Brewers relief ace Josh Hader

It looks like rough times are ahead for Brewers relief ace Josh Hader

The Brewers' best pitcher is in some serious hot water before the second half of the MLB season gets underway.

As he was serving up a 3-run homer in the All-Star Game Tuesday night, Josh Hader's Tweets from 2011 were aired publicly and the result was...not good.

Hader's Tweets as a 17-year-old reflected racist and homophobic remarks, among other issues. (A summary of his Tweets can be found at Deadspin.)

After the All-Star Game, Hader was immediately put in front of reporters to respond to the Tweets and admitted he will accept any punishment that comes his way — including any possible suspension:

He won't be suspended by the league and will instead under go sensitivity training, but this absolutely could affect Hader mentally moving forward. 

Case in point:

He can ask teammate Ryan Braun how to deal when fans turn on you, but it's going to be a lot more difficult for a 24-year-old in his first full big-league season to deal with any hate that comes down. 

Hader has been the Brewers' most valuable pitcher all season, going 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and a ridiculous 16.7 K/9. 

But over the last month-plus, he's been...human.

Ever since Jason Heyward turned on a 98 mph Hader fastball to tie the game in Milwaukee on June 11, the Brewers' relief ace has a 2.84 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 13.5 K/9.

Still great numbers, to be sure, but not the Superman-esque line baseball fans came to expect from Hader after the first couple months of 2018. (Plus, the All-Star Game homer he served up to Jean Segura, but that obviously doesn't count for anything.)

With the Brewers already chasing the Cubs by 2.5 games in the division in the second half, they can't afford Hader's slump to worsen.

Though Cubs fans may be rooting for that...

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Willson Contreras’ third-inning home run might not have ended up standing out too much in an All-Star Game featuring a jaw-dropping and record-shattering 10 dingers.

But, obviously, it will always stand out to the guy who hit it.

“I enjoyed every single second that I spent out there.”

Remarkably, Contreras repeated his feat from two seasons ago, when he hit his first big league homer on the first big league pitch he ever saw. Ditto on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, when he launched the first pitch he saw as an All Star out over the wall in left field.

“When I hit the ball and thought it was gone, I went back to 2016, playing in Chicago. It was the same thing, first pitch for a homer,” Contreras, all smiles, said following the American League’s 8-6 victory. “I’m really blessed with these kinds of situations. Those moments, they’re going to be history and they’re going to be in my mind and my heart.”

Contreras’ long ball was the highlight of the evening for fans watching back home in Chicago. Javy Baez got a hit in his first All-Star at-bat but was outdone by his teammate. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu was hitless in his two trips to the plate.

And while it will be a highlight on this night for Cubs fans, it will be a highlight forever for Contreras, who enjoyed the heck out of his first All-Star experience.

“‘I did it, I did it,’” he said when asked what was going through his head. “I knew it was something special. And I wasn’t trying to do too much because these guys are nasty, throwing 98 in the first inning. I just tried to get the hit out.”

The nasty guy he went deep against was Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, whose 2.27 ERA on the season made him a very worthy inclusion on the AL roster. But Contreras was more impressed with the guy who started the game for the National League, raving about Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer after the game.

“He was great, man. Great stuff, he gets so into the game,” Contreras said. “I would like to have him one day on my team or play with him for a few years. That guy is amazing.”

That’s not the current Nationals star Cubs fans are dreaming about, Willy, but point taken.

But it wasn’t Snell or Scherzer or even Baez or Jon Lester, also in the NL dugout, who Contreras was thinking about the most during his home run trot. Instead, Contreras was thinking about his grandfather, Ernesto, who passed away a few years ago.

“My grandpa, he died in 2015,” Contreras said. “I grew up with him.

“He didn’t play ball. But I feel like every time I go out there and step into the box, he’s at my back. It just feels amazing when you hit a homer or do something special, look at the sky and you know that he’s there smiling somewhere.”

It all made for a pretty incredible night for Contreras, who has officially and loudly taken his place among baseball’s best on the game’s biggest stage.

The only thing that was missing? The ball.

Yeah, Contreras didn’t get the ball, not that he really expected to. But if you’ve got it, he wants it.

“I don’t think they’re giving it back,” he said with a grin.

We’ll see. Social media’s a powerful tool. So reach out.