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.”

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.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.

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

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:


Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.