Starlin Castro believes this Cubs season has made him stronger


Starlin Castro believes this Cubs season has made him stronger

SAN FRANCISCO — This isn’t the breakthrough season Starlin Castro envisioned for the Cubs. A three-time All-Star shortstop would have pictured being in the middle of it all when Wrigley Field started rocking again.

But Castro hasn’t pouted since losing his job to Addison Russell, trying to make the best of the situation and reinvent himself as a second baseman. Contributing to a winning team — finally — means more than his stats or his ego.

“Those moments make you stronger,” Castro said.

Castro forced his way into Wednesday’s lineup against the San Francisco Giants, batting second after almost hitting for the cycle the night before at AT&T Park (where Russell arrived late after the birth of his son).

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If a very streaky hitter suddenly gets hot, could Castro become an everyday player again?

“Sure,” manager Joe Maddon said. “The consistent hard contact was really nice to see. The fact that he’s taken so readily and easily to second base — just the way he’s handled this professionally — speaks loudly to me and to the whole group.

“This guy is an All-Star-caliber player. He’s just had a hard time this year. And it happens. It happens to all of us. But like I said, I think he’s done everything properly, and we’ll see how it plays.”

Maddon still wants to play matchups and incorporate Chris Coghlan and Tommy La Stella at second base (while Javier Baez is also a likely September call-up from Triple-A Iowa).

[MORE CUBS: Cubs counting on Kyle Hendricks in the stretch run]

But Castro isn’t looking for a way out of Chicago, even with a feeling inside his camp that a change of scenery might help reboot his career.

Castro is guaranteed $37 million across the next four years, which complicates any offseason trade talks but still doesn’t even take him to his 30th birthday.

Even though so much has changed around him, Castro still feels a loyalty to the organization that signed him out of the Dominican Republic almost nine years ago.

After being a lightning rod for the teams that finished in fifth place for five years in a row, Castro wants to see the next phase of this rebuilding project.

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Starlin Castro jersey right here]

“That means a lot,” Castro said. “I’ve been here when the team’s been struggling. That’s why I want to (get out there) now that we’re playing so good. I want to be part of this team.”

Castro homered for the first time since June 12 on Tuesday at a place where it’s supposed to be harder to see the ball at night and generate power. But in working with hitting coach John Mallee, Castro has mostly been focusing on trying to blast line drives right back up the middle. Castro’s OPS still hadn’t risen above .600 yet, but he had gone 20-for-65 (.308 average) in his previous 23 games.

Who knows what the next chapter will be in such an up-and-down career?

“For me right now, it doesn’t matter where I am in the lineup,” Castro said. “I just want to be in the lineup every day, to get my confidence back, to get my every-day play back. That’s what we’re trying to do again.”

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

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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