Cubs riding the ups and downs with Starlin Castro


Cubs riding the ups and downs with Starlin Castro

At age 25, Starlin Castro’s already a three-time All-Star, but the Cubs don’t really know what they’re going to get out of their shortstop from one night to the next.

That’s not a comforting thought for a team that’s seven games over .500 on June 15 and on pace for 90 wins.

But Joe Maddon – the fifth manager Castro has played for during his six seasons in the big leagues – continues to stress the positives and defend someone the Cubs hoped would develop into a franchise player.

“I know when he makes a mistake, it seems to be amplified,” Maddon said before bad weather postponed Monday night’s game against the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field. “But for the most part, I think he’s done a pretty good job.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

May could have been Castro’s worst overall month since getting promoted from Double-A Tennessee five years ago. He hit .221 with a .539 OPS and committed eight errors in 28 games.

That followed a superb April where Castro looked more engaged at shortstop and energized by the possibility of playing for a contender, hitting .325 with a .758 OPS.

Maybe those walk-off hits against the Cincinnati Reds on back-to-back nights at Wrigley Field over the weekend mean things are beginning to click again.

“I’ve started feeling pretty good,” Castro said. “You just (have to be) ready to hit the fastball. I can hit the slider for a strike, or a curveball for a strike. Any breaking ball for a strike I could hit. The little problem that I had was looking for too many offspeed (pitches). And when they threw me the fastball, I’d be late. Now, I’m back looking for my fastball and getting ready for whatever pitch they throw me.”

[MORE: Neil Ramirez's potential impact on Cubs' bullpen]

After years of being the lightning rod and getting singled out for criticism, the Cubs are putting a positive spin on Castro. Probably because he is already such an accomplished player (912 career hits) with a good attitude in the clubhouse and a reasonable contract that could keep him under club control through 2020.

And the marketing campaign also wouldn’t hurt in case Theo Epstein’s front office has any ideas about shaking up their middle infield at some point in the future.

“I think he’s getting better,” Maddon said of Castro. “He just works so hard. His work’s been great. He’s hit in the past. He’s hit at a very high level in the past, which tells me he’s going to do it again.

“We’ve talked about (how) I think he’s trying a little bit too hard sometimes. That’s where I think that rollover groundball comes from – trying to do too much. The last two nights, in big moments, line drive up the middle, line drive in the gap. And I’ve always said to him: I’d like to see left-center be his left-field foul line. Meaning to not try to pull the ball so much.

“Overall, defensively, again, his biggest problem’s been a routine play. He’s made a lot of great plays, and he’s messed up on a couple routine things.”

Also remember Castro would never have gotten to this point if he didn’t have uber-confidence, mental toughness and enough control of his emotions to be the same guy every day.

“That’s part of the game,” Castro said. “We get some hot (streaks), we get some cold, but the most important thing is we try to be on one level.”

Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber select their Home Run Derby pitchers

Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber select their Home Run Derby pitchers

The 2018 Home Run Derby starts Monday night at 7 p.m., and Cubs Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber have picked who will be their pitchers.

Baez has chosen his brother Gadiel, while Schwarber selected Mike Sanicola, who played at the University of Miami and is a friend of Schwarber’s agent, Jason Romano.

Gadiel does have a baseball background in his back pocket. After playing baseball in high school, he played at Cowley College (JUCO), Tabor College (NAIA) and played in an independent league for two years.

It’ll be a first time experience for both Baez and Schwarber, who are the first Cubs to participate in the Home Run Derby since Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant did it back in 2015.

Could Baez or Schwarber be the home run king? Will just have to wait and see.

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

If the season ended today, Javy Baez may be your National League MVP.

Of course, the season isn't ending today, only the first half of the 2018 campaign is.

He flashed his skills again over the weekend — scoring the game-winning run Friday, posting a 5-RBI game Saturday and then drove in the Cubs' first run in their 7-4 victory Sunday to close out a sweep of the Padres.

Entering the All-Star Break, Baez should be the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.

For starters, he's the best player on the best team in the league.

Thanks to a recent hot surge by the Cubs and an ugly weekend for the Brewers (who have lost 6 straight), Baez and Co. will go into the break with the best record in the NL. 

Baez, meanwhile, leads the Cubs in WAR and nearly every offensive category — OPS, slugging percentage, homers, RBI, runs scored, doubles, triples, total bases, stolen bases and hits.

And that's not even saying anything about his glovework at any position on the infield or dynamic baserunning.

He's on pace to become the first Cubs player to drive in 125 runs since Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Baez also is on track for a 30-30 season — something only Sosa accomplished in a Cubs uniform in 1993 and 1995. 

El Mago will enjoy his week in the Home Run Derby and as the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, but those shouldn't be the end of his accolades this year if he can find a way to keep this pace up in the second half.

What other NL candidate would be a better choice for the MVP right now?

Baez is tied for the league lead in RBI. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar is just behind Baez with 70 RBI, but he also has 70 fewer at-bats than the Cubs star due to a platoon to begin the year. 

Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are also having great years, but the Reds are nowhere close to a playoff spot. 

Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are also having very good seasons on teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, but how do you deny the best player on the league's best team?

After all, where would the Cubs be without Baez this season? 

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, the pitching staff has had all kinds of consistency/health woes and Willson Contreras has yet to find his power stroke at the plate.

At the very least, "El Mago" has been the most important player on the North Side of Chicago during the first 3.5 months of 2018.