Cubs

Cubs riding the ups and downs with Starlin Castro

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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.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.