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Cubs lineup revolves around Starlin Castro

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Cubs lineup revolves around Starlin Castro

Thursday, April 21, 2011Posted: 7:42 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Starlin Castro slammed his helmet to the ground as he turned at first base.

With two outs and two runners on, Castro had just hammered Aaron Harangs first-pitch, 91 mph fastball. Castro watched Cameron Maybin diving to make the catch in center, sliding flat on his stomach onto the warning track at Wrigley Field.

Yes, it was a sign of frustration in Wednesdays 5-4 loss to the San Diego Padres. But that fifth-inning moment also showed you that Castro isnt just along for the ride or happy to be here.

Castros senses hadnt been dulled by Game 2 of a double header. This was his first time in the No. 3 spot and he would finish the night batting .375, which ranked fourth in the National League. Theres no doubt that his reflex is to want more.

Hes going to (be) exceptional, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. Castros a good enough offensive player that down the road he can hit anywhere in the lineup.

Thats exactly where all this is heading. About a month after his 21st birthday, and less than two years removed from Class-A ball, Castro already has nine multi-hit games this season and a real understanding of what he wants out of each at-bat.

The 9-9 Cubs have scored more than five runs only four times so far this season. Part of that can be rationalized by playing in Chicago in April. But deep down they know that theyll be playing many low-scoring, one-run games across the next five-plus months.

The Cubs entered Thursdays off-day at second in the NL in average (.277); sixth in on-base percentage (.331); and tied for eighth in runs scored (74) and homers (14). But they ranked near the bottom of the league in hitting with runners in scoring position (.222).

To maximize Castros value, there will be calls to make Castro the permanent No. 3 hitter.

Lou Piniella grew tired of the daily lineup questions, but manager Mike Quade plays along. Even Quades brother recently asked him if the Cubs will settle on one grouping.

The whole lineup thing is evolving, Quade said. I dont see anything being set. Left-handers versus right-handers were a different club. The one-two-three hole could be musical chairs given who I have in the lineup that particular day.

Marlon Byrd has been batting third and its likely that Quade will continue to give him at-bats there. Byrds hitting .267 and has gone 4-for-22 with runners in scoring position, though his average was at .391 just last week.

Now that Kosuke Fukudomes hamstring has healed and because hes getting on base 50 percent of the time he remains a viable leadoff option. So is Jeff Baker against left-handed pitching. The prototypical leadoff hitter is baseballs endangered species.

The person that everybody wants to keep hammering about doesnt exist too often, Hendry said. You just do the best you can. Mikes done a good job with mixing and matching and certainly the guys in the middle of the infield have done extremely well.

In spring training Quade said that he didnt want to overload his young shortstop with leadoff responsibilities, but that didnt last beyond the seasons first weekend.

Castro has gone 19-for-41 (.463) at the top of the order. Second baseman Darwin Barney has emerged as an ideal No. 2 hitter because of his instincts and ability to handle the bat.

Barneys hitting .317 (13-for-41) with five runs, four walks, three doubles, one triple and five RBI in his last 10 games.

Were just trying to see pitches (and) feed off each other, Barney said. I try to move (Castro) around. Hes on base every time. (Lets) see if we can make things happen.

These are only snapshots. Alfonso Soriano leads the team in homers (six) and RBI (14). He feels his knees are strong again and credits his nonstop work with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo.

My mind is so clear now, Soriano said. I know what I want to do.

Aramis Ramirez hasnt hit for power yet, but hes healthy, motivated and seeing the ball well (.403 on-base percentage). Tyler Colvin (.136 average) has been pressing, and Carlos Pena is still waiting for his first home run in a Cubs uniform.

Hendry promises that the veterans will get better because their baseball card will tell you they will.

Thats wide open for Castro. The Cubs cant wait to watch their homegrown shortstop pile up numbers across the next decade.

Soon enough everyone will forget about the lineup questions and start wondering which pieces the Cubs need to build around Castro.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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