Cubs

Cubs facing another big decision with Starlin Castro this offseason

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Cubs facing another big decision with Starlin Castro this offseason

The Cubs can’t come out and say: We have no idea what we’ll get out of Starlin Castro from one year to the next.

That reality obviously makes Castro a difficult player to build around (or trade this offseason). But the Cubs genuinely admired the way a three-time All-Star shortstop handled losing his job and respected how he made adjustments in the batter’s box and reinvented himself as a second baseman.

Nine years ago this week, the Cubs signed a teenager out of the Dominican Republic who would put up almost 1,000 hits before his 26th birthday. Castro learned English quickly and kept working on the language, which helped him rocket through the farm system, never spending a full season on the Double-A level and playing zero Triple-A games.

After being the lightning rod for five straight fifth-place teams, Castro caught the final out of a wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates and helped the Cubs eliminate the St. Louis Cardinals in the first playoff series ever against their hated rivals.

Theo Epstein says he would be fine with keeping this group of position players intact, but the president of baseball operations also knows the Cubs might have to trade hitters for a frontline pitcher.

Castro is guaranteed $37 million across the next four years — which complicates any potential deal — but that doesn’t look like a sunk cost after his second-half surge.

[MORE CUBS: Will Cubs double down with another Jon Lester-level megadeal?]

With all this uncertainty surrounding Castro’s future, did he show something to the front office?

“For sure,” Castro said. “I really can play second base, too. I like it (there). Whatever happens, happens. Like I said, I don’t handle that decision. Whatever they do, do it.”

The Cubs shopped Castro but couldn’t drum up much interest by the July 31 trade deadline, when he had been batting .237 with a .575 OPS that made him one of the least productive hitters in the majors.

One week later, the Cubs would bench Castro and install Addison Russell as their everyday shortstop.

“I really honestly didn’t know how he would react to the whole thing,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’d be lying if I said I did. But I can tell you this: When we sat him down, I was very direct and honest with him. There was nothing gray about it. He was not going to play shortstop, except for maybe game-in-progress.

“In that meeting, he looked at me straight up and he did not whimper, cry, complain, make any excuse or say I was wrong. He never said any of that. He just nodded his head and went to work.”

[MORE CUBS: Addison Russell made his presence felt during rookie year with Cubs]

A player criticized for his lack of concentration focused on learning how to play second base, where his natural sidearm motion translated. Castro made mechanical adjustments and evolved as a hitter, moving closer to home plate, closing his stance and directing all that momentum back toward the pitcher instead of leaning over to hit groundball after groundball.

Maddon played Castro in favorable matchups and watched him hit .296 in August. Castro exploded in September, putting up a 1.202 OPS and becoming a key piece to a 97-win team, the fans at Wrigley Field clapping along to his catchy walk-up music: Omega’s “Ando En La Versace.”

“I think you see — by how he dealt with so much adversity this season — how much he loves being part of this organization,” Epstein said. “And how much he embraced the move to second base and how hard he worked to bounce back from this low point in his career to become such an important contributor down the stretch.

“So of all the players that we need to be proud of this year — and there are many — he might be the one most deserving of that pride because of everything that he went through (and) how easy it would have been for him to quit or to put his own interests in front of the interests of the team.

“He really rose above that on a personal level — and on a professional level — and set a wonderful tone that I know his teammates and his front office really appreciated. So kudos to him for, in total, a great year, while not his best year statistically.

“He finished incredibly strong. We expect great things from him for years to come.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right now]

Temperamentally, Castro seems more suited to being a supporting actor rather than a leading man (though that description probably fits for most players). Castro and All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo clearly benefited from not being the focus every day and getting help up and down the lineup.

“It’s hard,” Castro said. “It’s not every day you’re going to have a good game, you know what I mean? Especially with the team that we got right now, if you don’t hit it well that day, you got like eight guys that can do that job for you. I think it’s pretty awesome.”

Castro finished with a .265 average, 11 homers, 69 RBIs, a .671 OPS — and maybe a new image. What’s unclear is whether that means he stays or goes.

“The assumption is that he’d been here for such a long period of time that there was nothing left to learn, and that’s like so crazy to think that way,” Maddon said. “He’s not done getting better. He’s going to keep getting better because now he gets it. He absolutely gets it. He understands what it takes to be on a winning ballclub.”

Brandon Morrow lands on DL after hurting back while taking his pants off

Brandon Morrow lands on DL after hurting back while taking his pants off

Remember that one time Sammy Sosa threw out his back while sneezing? Well, Brandon Morrow may have topped that on the Cubs all-time list of wacky injuries.

The 33-year-old closer was placed on the 10-day disabled list prior to Wednesday's game after hurting his back while taking his pants off upon returning from the team's road trip to St. Louis. It's being labeled as "lower back tightness."

"It's frustrating any time you can't get out there, and especially when you can't go because of something stupid like taking your pants off," Morrow told reporters on Tuesday.

And that's put the Cubs pitching staff in a tough spot for the rest of the week, given Wednesday's series finale against the Dodgers is the third game in a little more than 24 hours for the Cubs.

"I don't want to downplay anything," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "Obviously he had back spams, he had the same thing in spring training. We'll start treating it the same way we did in spring training; I think he was out about a week to 10 days. If things go as we hope, I think it'd be the kind of thing where he'd probably be able to be throwing before the 10 days is up.

"But we felt like it wasn't going to be something where he was ready this weekend and if he's not going to be ready all weekend, we can already backdate it three days so it made sense to put him on the DL."

Morrow is tied for fifth in the National League with 16 saves and owns a 1.59 ERA is 26 relief appearances this season. Justin Hancock, who served as the 26th man during Tuesday's doubleheader, stayed with the team as a result.

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Dominating.

That's how a smiling Theo Epstein described Yu Darvish's simulated game at Wrigley Field Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the "Friendly Confines," the Cubs' clubhouse was getting used to the idea of closer Brandon Morrow on the disabled list.

Such is life for the current state of affairs for the Cubs pitching staff with their two biggest additions from the winter now on the shelf at the same time.

Darvish threw roughly 50 pitches in his sim game against hitters Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella. He worked in all his pitches and liked the way his fastball and slider felt, but needs to refine his curveball and splitter with more work.

"I feel good," Darvish said through a translator. "There was some anxiety beforehand, but I think it turned out to be better than I expected."

Darvish said the anxiety stemmed mostly from his past elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2014.

"Definitly the elbow aspect," Darvish said. "The anxiety came from whether I could throw at 100 percent condition."

This is the second time Darvish has mentioned his past elbow injury is in the back of his mind as he's worked through the current triceps issue. He said the same thing last week in Milwaukee after his first bullpen session.

Remember, too, Darvish was concerned about the possibility of cramps in his arm in his Cubs debut in Miami in late March.

It appears as if he has some mental hurdles to work through with his history of elbow problems, but he hasn't reported pain in weeks now and the MRI showed no structural damage in late May.

The Cubs do not yet have a set plan for Darvish after this sim game and will evaluate how he feels Thursday. If the reports are all good, he could head out on a rehab assignment shortly.

Darvish said he would only need one rehab start before he'd be ready to rejoin the Cubs rotation.

Meanwhile, Morrow's back tightened up on him in the wee hours of Monday morning after the Cubs made the trip back from the night game in St. Louis. He hurt his back taking off his pants, he said, and was unavailable Monday and Tuesday before the Cubs put him on the disabled list Wednesday morning.

"It's just one of those freakish things," Maddon said. "People bend over and hurt their backs all the time."

The Cubs have been uber cautious with Morrow all year with his injury history and now that they're in the midst of a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Tuesday's doubleheader, can't afford to not have a fresh arm in the bullpen.

"We thought it would be wise to give him a couple days," Joe Maddon said. "It's like a back spasm, back tightness. We just can't go with one less pitcher right now coming off the doubleheader. 

"...It's for him, too. I don't want him to go out there and pitch coming off that right now. There's really no reason to rush it back. Prefer him getting 100 percent well, getting him back out there when it's right and then moving on from there."

In Morrow's absence, Maddon will play matchups with the closing options as he did in Game 1 Tuesday. Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson and Pedro Strop all have experience closing.

The Cubs also don't have an update yet on Carl Edwards Jr. as he works his way back from a shoulder injury. He's been throwing from flat ground and looking "outstanding," Maddon said, but the team doesn't have a finish line yet. Edwards would probably need a short rehab stint before returning, too.

Then there's Brian Duensing, who is currently on the bereavement list due to the passing of his grandfather. The Cubs expect to have their left-handed veteran back by Friday.

All told, the Cubs are without Morrow, Edwards, Duensing, Mike Montgomery (rotation) and Eddie Butler (DL - groin) from their Opening Day bullpen. Only Cishek, Strop and Wilson remain from the group.

In their stead are Luke Farrell, Justin Hancock, Randy Rosario, Rob Zastryzny and Anthony Bass — all 5 of which have been pretty successful during their time in Chicago.

As if there wasn't already enough complications with the Cubs pitching staff, here are three more:

—The weather in Cincinnati this weekend
—Tyler Chatwood's wife is about to have the couple's first child
—Monday's rain/light-out at Wrigley Field pushed Chatwood back a day, so he cannot start Saturday's game

Let's start with the weather. As of Wednesday afternoon, there was a 100 percent chance of rain all day in Cincinnati on Thursday, where the Cubs begin a four-game series. The forecast doesn't look much better for Friday, either.

Even if the Cubs are able to play every game as scheduled, who will start Saturday? It can't be any of the current rotation members given none would be on regular rest. 

Chatwood would be in line to start Sunday's series finale in Cincinnati, but that's only if his wife isn't given birth at the time.

So right now, the Cubs don't know who's going to start either game this weekend. They could call somebody up from the minor leagues or give the ball to Farrell, who is still stretched out enough to give them 4-5 innings or so.

"It's totally by ear," Maddon said. "This is absolutely seat of the pants. We have Farrell, of course. By not using Farrell [Thursday or Friday], he would be a consideration, no question. 

"But other than that, we got a baby on the way, we got all kinds of stuff going on, so we're just gonna have to play that by ear."

With the pitching shortage, it makes what Jon Lester (7 shutout innings Wednesday) and Mike Montgomery (6 innings in Game 2 Tuesday) even more important to the overall health of the unit, eating up innings at a desperate time.

The Cubs' next off-day won't come until July 2, barring any weather delays. So this stretch will be huge for how Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff/front office handles the pitching staff.

But hey, at least it's only June and not October.