Cubs

Cubs: Ian Stewart, Starlin Castro and the price of going young

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Cubs: Ian Stewart, Starlin Castro and the price of going young

Updated: 6:45 p.m.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. You can only use youth as an excuse for so long.

That wont make any Baseball is Better billboards trying to sell tickets to Wrigley Field. But that was the message from manager Dale Sveum, and it says everything about how the clock is ticking on young players and the front office the fans are staring at it toward when the Cubs will actually go hunting for big game at the winter meetings.

Believe it or not, many pieces of the puzzle are already in place. The Cubs certainly arent done, but by agreeing to a one-year, 2 million deal (plus incentives) with third baseman Ian Stewart before leaving Nashville, they have a pretty good idea of their 2013 Opening Day lineup.

The soaring price for free agents only highlighted how much the Cubs have to be right on these young players, how much they need Starlin Castro, who wants to be the face of the franchise. Or else its getting over the sticker shock and behaving the way a big-market teams supposed to at the Opryland Hotel.

Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer checked out of this sprawling biodome, leaving behind the gigantic Christmas trees and indoor gardens and waterfalls, for the United flight back to Chicago. They will be at a Wrigley Field news conference on Friday to introduce Kyuji Fujikawa and give a nuanced explanation for their closer non-controversy.

Otherwise, everything else can be divided into core players and short-term complementary pieces, like Nate Schierholtz, who turned down multi-year offers elsewhere for the opportunity to play more here in right field and prove himself on a one-year, 2.25 million contract.

Theres a long way to go until we get to Mesa, Hoyer said, and their resources and willingness to walk away and wait it out tell you that the Cubs could be in on anything right up until pitchers and catchers report to Arizona.

In 2013, Castro will be at the center of it all, whether the All-Star shortstops anchoring the defense while Scott Baker and Scott Feldman try to pitch to the game plan and get groundballs, or putting up bigger numbers as he develops more power.

Cole Hamels and Matt Cain never made it to the open market this winter, and neither will Joey Votto and Ryan Zimmerman next year. Just look at how the Cubs locked up Castro with a seven-year, 60 million extension.

The free agents are getting older and more expensive, and teams will be bankrolled by new television money.

Unprompted, one National League scout said how he couldnt believe Shane Victorino got a three-year, 39 million deal from the Red Sox. And even on a broken leg (which should heal), the Cubs really wanted utility guy Jeff Keppinger, who instead got a three-year, 12 million deal from the White Sox.

The Cubs actually tried to sign Keppinger last winter for 1 million-plus, before he agreed to a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. This is the rate of inflation.

There simply isnt an ideal solution at third base. As Epstein suggested, it would be a good time to be Mike Schmidt 2.0.

The market is such that the Cubs non-tendered Stewart and had to beat out several teams with significant interest just to re-sign him coming off a season in which he hit .201 with a .627 OPS and had wrist surgery.

The Cubs werent looking to buy a brand name. They will take a chance on Stewarts age (28 next year), athleticism and plus defense, even though they got burned last season.

Also remember that as the Cubs build the left side of their infield, they still have Castro, who will turn 23 during spring training and generated 14 homers and 78 RBI last season at a premium position.

This is roughly when he should start to break out, Hoyer said. Hes going to start making that jump. The contract situation certainly was something that was on his mind last year. He now knows how we feel about him. He knows hes got security.

All those financial issues (he) doesnt have to worry about those things anymore. While last year that might have distracted him, I think this year that should be something hes relaxed about.

He can just go out and play. I would be disappointed, candidly, if he didnt take a step forward next year and I think he feels the same way.

Epstein says the Cubs dont want cookie-cutter hitters, but manager Dale Sveum has essentially called those 200 hits empty calories. Meaning Castro will have to show more discipline at the plate and become a more dangerous hitter.

What I want to see out of him is just keep progressing mentally, Sveum said, and understand the process of becoming a winning player and not a hit seeker. (Its) becoming more of a winning hitter in situations, by driving runs in, understanding the situations defensively.

This will be Year 4 in the big leagues for Castro, who for all his natural gifts and inner confidence can drift at times on the field.

He came a long way, but still has to even concentrate more, Sveum said. Weve got him probably just throwing a number out there really focused 80 to 85 percent of the time. We got to get that to 95 percent of the time. I dont think anybody ever really focuses 100 percent. I think youd be lying if you said that with 300-plus pitches per game. He took a lot of pride in it and did get much better for a 22-year-old kid.

Yes, that team-friendly contract could become easy to move at some point, but the Cubs are years away from seriously considering that and want to build around Castro. They have created a land of opportunity for 20-something kids, pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery and players who want to prove themselves.

Four nights in Nashville only reinforced what Epstein and the Cubs already knew: The good young players they want dont exist here. Theyve gone down a different road and cant turn back now.

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

Ozzie Guillen and David DeJesus join Leila Rahimi on Wednesday's podcast. After Tuesday's game-winning hit and second self-inflicted Gatorade bath the guys wonder if anyone has more fun on the field than Yolmer Sanchez. Jim DeShaies joins the conversation and brings Javy Baez to the table.

Plus, Manny Mania continues to swirl in Chicago. Finally, what should be the White Sox plan for calling up their top prospects?

Listen to the full Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast right here:

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."