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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).

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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.”

Cubs' 'super frightening' close call in St. Louis shows how fragile season is

Cubs' 'super frightening' close call in St. Louis shows how fragile season is

All the Cubs wanted before leaving for the ballpark in St. Louis on Friday was “just reassurance” before playing one of the two teams in the majors that had endured a major COVID-19 outbreak.

“And they assured us they were going to communicate every detail of why we should be on the field,” Cubs manager David Ross said.

Ross spoke Saturday morning via Zoom from Chicago — that fact itself a reminder of the details that started pin-balling from all the wrong directions Friday morning.

“It’s just another one of those reminders of how quick things can get out of control right now in this environment,” said Ross, whose team learned early enough to avoid even showing up at Busch Stadium and to reschedule its charter to land at O’Hare before 8 p.m. Friday.

Ross called the communication from Major League Baseball and the Cardinals “outstanding.”

But he paused when asked about just how close their near-miss with the coronavirus was this weekend.

As in: What if the three Cardinals who tested positive Friday (after reportedly being exposed Wednesday) hadn’t gotten their positive results until Saturday instead — after spending Friday night in the same building and on the field with the Cubs?

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“I hadn’t looked at it like that,” Ross said. “It shows how fast it can get out of control. That part of the virus is super frightening.”

At least two of the 16 Cardinals players and staff known to have tested positive in the last 10 days are said to have symptoms, the severity of which are unclear.

But even beyond that reminder of the health-risk roll of the dice for each individual (and his family), Friday’s close call for the Cubs underscores just how fragile baseball’s attempt at a two-month season is.

“We send our best to the Cardinals and those players. It’s a scary time,” Ross said, “and we all want baseball to move forward and guys to be healthy.”

The Cubs are the only team in the league, through at least Friday, who have not had a player test positive.

Two teams, including the Marlins, already have had major outbreaks, with the Cardinals into their second week of postponed series and sleepless nights for their president of baseball operations.

“I don’t know what really our future looks like at this point,” Cards president John Mozeliak said, according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Experts who we consulted with gave us advice that we could take that next step forward. I don’t know what the right answer is. Is it two days? Is it five days? Is it 10 days? Or is it two weeks?

“The whole country, the whole world, is facing these same questions. We’re just caught in the middle of it.”

Along with everybody else in baseball.

The Cardinals have played only five games, and their next series, against Pittsburgh, reportedly is on the verge of being postponed as well.

The Cubs’ next opponent, Cleveland, has 16 games in the books with Saturday’s game against the White Sox.

Fifty days remain in the scheduled 60-game season after Saturday.

The 10-3 Cubs have it better than most, even with the lost series against the Cardinals — a postponement that for now looks more like a cause to celebrate than for disappointment.

But what does the league do if the virus doesn’t allow the Cardinals to play by the end of the week? And what if a third team — or a fourth — experiences an outbreak.

And just how close did the Cubs come to becoming that third team if they had played a game or two of that series with asymptomatic, infected Cardinals unwittingly on the same field.

When the Cardinals’ outbreak initially unfolded while the team was in Milwaukee last weekend, one result was Brewers star center fielder Lorenzo Cain becoming one of four players in a two-day span to opt out of playing the rest of the season.

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“It’s 2020, where we know we’ve got to take it one day at a time,” Ross said. “We’ve talked about that from the start.”

The Cubs and almost everybody in the league — including Mozeliak’s Cardinals — seem to have taken the health risk and hyper-contagious nature of COVID-19 seriously enough for most of the schedule to be played so far.

The Cardinals, in fact, invested in equipment years ago they have used since to sanitize visiting clubhouses on the road ahead of players occupying them.

The Cubs have exceeded MLB standard safety protocols with impressive enough results that other teams have reached out to discuss their methods.

And yet the Cardinals’ season hangs by a thread. And the Cubs, for all their precautions, might have sidestepped direct exposure by a matter of a few hours, a few reliable tests, and luck.

By extension, if not by definition, the league’s season also hangs by a thread.

“I think we all know that this season is just really a year of who can adjust to a little bit of adversity and some change,” Ross said. “And that’s going to be throughout the season. We know that. And we’ll continue to push forward.”

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How David Ross plans to keep Cubs 'sharp' after Cardinals series postponed

How David Ross plans to keep Cubs 'sharp' after Cardinals series postponed

One phone call Friday morning set in motion a reversal of the Cubs’ weekend plans. Instead of battling the Cardinals in a three-game series at Busch Stadium, they were heading home to Chicago and had four off days to fill before their next game.

“I think it's a little bit of a reset for us,” Cubs manager David Ross said Saturday, “ … and we’ve got continue to try to stay as sharp as we possibly can, get back to maybe work on a few things we might want to clean up in this downtime, and use it to our advantage as best we can.”

With the Cubs’ weekend series against the Cardinals postponed, due to three more members of the Cardinals organization testing positive for COVID-19, Ross said he gave the Cubs position players the option to take Saturday off. For the pitchers, it was a light workout day, a chance to throw a bullpen.

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The Cubs plan to play a simulated game Sunday and have a “fun” competition on Monday, Ross said.

Other aspects of the Cubs’ path forward remain unclear, like when will they make up the postponed series. And even more pressing, which pitcher will start on Tuesday at Cleveland?

Ross said he and his coaches have talked about how the schedule adjustment will affect the starting rotation, but there are still discussions to be had with the pitching staff.

Left-hander Jon Lester, who was supposed to start on Friday, was among those scheduled to throw a bullpen session Saturday.

“Jon especially, a veteran guy, knows how to take care of himself and knows how to back off or give a little more,” Ross said. “…There's no substitute for competition. I think we all know that. And getting out there against another jersey is important. It is important to stay sharp, physically and mentally, and staying ready. But we have a ton of professionals.”

He pointed to the almost four months of off time between the cancellation of Spring Training and the start of the regular season.

 Kyle Hendricks, for example, prepared for the accelerated summer camp so well that he threw a complete game on Opening Day. Any reshuffling of the rotation’s schedule couldn’t be nearly as much of a challenge.

“It's 2020, where we know we've got to take it one day at a time,” Ross said. “… We were planning to play St. Louis, they told us we weren't, so we came home and we adjusted. And we'll do that as best we can to continue this season.”

Ross had been hoping for a different kind of phone call on Friday morning. The Cardinals traveling party produced no new positive COVID-19 tests for consecutive days before MLB cleared the team to return to St. Louis and resume their schedule. The week prior, 13 players and staff members had tested positive.

“Going into it, with all that was going on, we were hoping to hear some news that morning, or just a reassurance,” Ross said, “and they had assured us that they were going to communicate every detail of why they thought we should be on the field.”

Instead, the Cubs received word that Friday’s game had been postponed. Ross described Major League Baseball’s communication as “outstanding.”

The Cubs support staff adjusted on the fly. Director of Major League travel and clubhouse operations Vijay Tekchandani contacted United Airlines to set up a return flight. Team dietitian Jordan Brown arranged for meals at the hotel that weren’t originally on the schedule.

“A lot of adjustments on their part,” Ross said, “and making sure everybody was comfortable and had some downtime but had some space to just get out of their room.”

Tekchandani had chosen a hotel with an outdoor patio that the players could use without running into other hotel guests and while practicing social distancing.

Around 5 p.m., the team learned that the rest of the series had been canceled. Less than an hour later, a bus was at the hotel to take the Cubs to the airport. They were back in Chicago before 8 p.m..

“Everybody was good yesterday,” Ross said of the players. “If I go back to my playing days, no matter what, you kind of welcome an off day in the middle of a long stretch. So, the first off day is always nice, nice and relaxing.”

The Cubs were off to a 10-3 start, in what was originally scheduled to be 17 straight games without an off day. Between a rainout in Cincinnati and the COVID-19 related postponement this weekend, that hasn’t been the case.

Now, the Cubs face a different kind of challenge: carrying momentum through a weekend off.

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