Cubs

Starlin Castro focused on winning now – not his future with Cubs

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Starlin Castro focused on winning now – not his future with Cubs

PHILADELPHIA – Starlin Castro waited long enough for this that he’s not going to worry about the future, what position he might play or where the Cubs could trade him this winter. 

After being a lightning rod for five fifth-place teams – and playing for his fifth manager in six seasons – Castro doesn’t need to be the center of attention or see his image opposite Derek Jeter on a billboard again.

Castro is going to appreciate the ride on a playoff contender – and not try to predict which teams could use a three-time All-Star shortstop who will be 26 years old next season.  

“I don’t really think about this,” Castro said. “I don’t really put that kind of thing in my mind. Whatever they decide…if it happens, it happens.

“I don’t really (make) this about me right now. Just enjoy the moment. And (whenever) I get my opportunity, I try to do my job. That’s all we care about right now.”

[MORE: Ready or not, Cubs will find out if bullpen is built for October]

The Cubs left Citizens Bank Park after Sunday’s 7-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies with their playoff probability still hovering near 100 percent on the computer simulations.

Up next: Four games in three days against the Pittsburgh Pirates beginning with Tuesday’s doubleheader at PNC Park. Right now: Having something to play for is more important to Castro than having a guaranteed spot in the lineup. 

“It’s awesome,” Castro said. “That’s the moment that we were always talking about, what we were always thinking about in years before when the team was really bad and we weren’t winning games. We were always in last place. Now, we’re coming with different emotion.

“We’re having fun. Whatever day that you get out there, you just try to play hard and help your team to win.”

Theo Epstein’s front office – a group that doesn’t like to sell low and has publicly backed Castro in the past – can figure out what to do with the four years and $38 million left on his contract later.

“I am back on track,” Castro said. “You’ll see a lot of good things from me right now. I feel locked in.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Castro has accepted his role as a part-time player, hitting .360 (27-for-75) since the Cubs made Addison Russell their franchise shortstop and showing why he still has value.

“He’s handled it well the whole time,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who had been put front and center next to Castro in this rebuild. “He’s a competitor. He wants to win. He knows what’s at stake here.”

This is the team concept Joe Maddon pushed since spring training, using matchups to build his lineups each day, pulling his starting pitchers early when necessary and staying away from traditionally defined roles in the bullpen, leaving little room for egos.

“We’re together,” Castro said. “We push for everyone. I don’t push for myself only. I don’t push for Latin (players) only. I push for all (my teammates). I push for (the whole team), because we want to win.

“We come in here, and we’re having fun. We’re jumping around. One goal. It’s play baseball and keep winning.

“This is an awesome time right now. And I think we got this.”

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

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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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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.