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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.

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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