Cubs

Starlin Castro knows he needs to start producing for Cubs

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Starlin Castro knows he needs to start producing for Cubs

Starlin Castro will spend the All-Star break in Chicago chilling with his newborn daughter (Scarlett) and two-year-old son (Starlin Jr.) — not hanging around the best baseball players in the world.

The Cubs are finally a relevant team in Castro’s sixth season in the majors, with a star manager he loves to play for and enough big names that he doesn’t have to be the story every day.

But amid all the “We Are Good” chest-pounding, a three-time All-Star shortstop will simply be looking to start over after a disappointing first half that might have been the worst stretch of his career.

“Reset the mind, reset the body, reset everything and start rocking again,” Castro said before Saturday’s 5-1 loss to the White Sox at Wrigley Field. “No more jokes in the second half. I have to finish strong. We know how it is. Keep playing hard and try to help my team.”

The Cubs waited until the 16th inning before scoring their first run in this crosstown series. White Sox ace Chris Sale predictably shut down a lineup that needs a jolt that probably won’t be coming at the July 31 trade deadline.

[MORE: Cubs' bats still MIA vs. Sale, White Sox]

General manager Jed Hoyer put it bluntly: “That help is not going to come from the outside.”

Maybe there’s a complementary outfielder out there somewhere, but the Cubs are making starting pitching the priority, since they’re already so invested in their core hitters and don’t have that much financial flexibility now.

“We know that we’re going to (need) some guys with track records to sort of get back to where they belong, and I think that will happen,” Hoyer said. “Every team goes through stretches of the season where they don’t score runs, and we’re sort of in that stretch now.”

Hoyer didn’t mention Castro by name. But Castro understands his importance and knows he needs to pick it up offensively, what it would mean if he again becomes the guy who hit .300 as a rookie and led the National League with 207 hits in 2011.

“We got the hitters here already,” Castro said. “We got (Anthony) Rizzo, (Kris) Bryant, (Miguel) Montero, (Jorge) Soler — me — and I’m slow right now. But it’s like one click (away).”

Castro came across as relaxed and confident, telling a reporter to sit down on the stool next to his locker before Saturday’s game.

[RELATED: Could Cubs and White Sox get together on a Samardzija trade?]

Castro looked smooth out on the field, starting a double play with a flip on the run to second baseman Addison Russell in the second inning. He also made a diving stop to his right and a strong throw to first base to take away a base hit in the third inning. He went 1-for-3 with two strikeouts and scored a run, keeping his batting average at .249.

But the Cubs haven’t seen the breakthrough they hoped for this year, even with Joe Maddon, more veteran leadership and All-Star performances from Rizzo and Bryant. 

Castro seemed to be taking his game to a new level last year until a season-ending ankle injury in September, leaving him with 14 homers, 65 RBI and a .777 OPS through 134 games.

Castro began the day with a .602 OPS that ranked 21st out of the 23 qualified shortstops in the big leagues. He’s hitting groundballs at a rate that would be a career high (57.1 percent), while generating line drives at a rate that would be a career low (14.9 percent), according to the online database at FanGraphs.

“I don’t think I’m doing anything different,” Castro said. “I don’t think I’m thinking too much. It’s not happening right now. But I know those kinds of things — especially when you start slow — they have to turn around, no matter what.

“The balls that we hit hard — the balls right at them — we can’t control that. The only thing that you can control is: Go out there and have a good at-bat. Things will turn around. It’s like one click off to get hot again. 

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“You can’t be at .300 in two days or whatever. Just keep grinding it out, and come back in the second half to do the thing that we always do.”

The best deadline move the Cubs could make to fix their offense might be sticking with Castro and hoping he comes back motivated and refreshed after the All-Star break.

“I don’t want to put pressure on myself and try to think about it too much,” Castro said. “We have a (wide-open) second half. And I know, in the end, the numbers are going to be there.

“Let’s rock it the second half and be ready to go.”

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

The Cubs didn't wait long to make Joe Maddon's words come true.

Roughly 5 hours after Maddon said the Cubs are definitely in the market for more pitching, the front office went out and acquired Jesse Chavez, a journeyman jack-of-all-trades type.

It's a minor move, not in the realm of Zach Britton or any of the other top relievers on the market.

But the Cubs only had to part with pitcher Class-A pitcher Tyler Thomas, their 7th-round draft pick from last summer who was pitching out of the South Bend rotation as a 22-year-old.

Chavez — who turns 35 in a month — brings over a vast array of big-league experience, with 799 innings under his belt. He's made 70 starts, 313 appearances as a reliever and even has 3 saves, including one this season for the Texas Rangers.

Chavez is currently 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. He has a career 4.61 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching for the Pirates, Braves, Royals, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers before coming to Chicago.

Of his 30 appearances this season, Chavez has worked multiple innings 18 times and can serve as a perfect right-handed swingman in the Cubs bullpen, filling the role previously occupied by Luke Farrell and Eddie Butler earlier in the season.

Chavez had a pretty solid run as a swingman in Oakland from 2013-15, making 47 starts and 50 appearances as a reliever, pitching to a 3.85 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 across 360.1 innings.

"Good arm, versatile, could start and relieve," Joe Maddon said Thursday after the trade. "I've watched him. I know he had some great runs with different teams. 

"The word that comes to mind is verstaility. You could either start him or put him in the bullpen and he's very good in both arenas."

It's not a flasy move, but a valuable piece to give the Cubs depth down the stretch.

There's no way the Cubs are done after this one trade with nearly two weeks left until the deadline. There are more moves coming from this front office, right?

"Oh yeah," Maddon said. "I don't think that's gonna be the end of it. They enjoy it too much."

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Expecting Jason Heyward to carry a team offensively would be thought as foolish just a few short months ago. But here in the middle of July, Heyward has turned into the offensive firestarter the Cubs have been seemingly missing since Dexter Fowler left. 

Heyward walked away from Thursday night's 9-6 win over the Cardinals tallying three hits, two RBI, two runs scored and his first stolen base of the year, as the 28-year-old outfielder continued to poke holes in the Cardinals defense. 

Twice Heyward was able to slip a ball between the 1st and 2nd basemen that off the bat looked like neither had a chance to make it through the right field side. Later, Heyward would battle through a lengthy at-bat, finally being rewarded with an opposite-field hit that drove in the game-tying run. 

"It just happened," Heyward explained. " [Carlos Martinez] is not going to give you a whole lot to do damage on throughout the game. I was able to get one pitch there and get a guy home." 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon mentioned Heyward and his ability to move the ball around the field and how it's helped him become an effective piece to this Cubs offense. So effective Heyward's batting average crept up to .290 after today's three-hit performance. 

Heyward credits his quick hands as the major tool he's utilized to create so many successful at-bats lately, which has allowed him to take advantage of certain pitches and punch them through for hits.

He's certainly not driving the ball for consistent power, but the approach has put Heyward on pace to match the 160 hit total he amassed with the Cardinals in 2015. 

"I feel like Joe's mindset on moving the ball is putting the ball in play when you got guys on base," said Heyward. "It keeps the line moving, regardless of the result." 

It might be crazy to think that Heyward's incredible turnaround this season might simply be attributed to putting the ball in play. But even just taking a look at Heyward's contact rates shows he's increased his contact on pitches outside the zone by roughly three percent.

Not a massive difference, but if Heyward's hands are truly giving him an edge at the plate, making contact with pitches that may not be a strike but are hittable pitches could explain the increased offense we are seeing now. 

"That's kinda the biggest thing," said Heyward. "The more good swings you take, the more hits you have a chance to get." 

Shooters shoot, and Heyward continues to shoot his shot and keep the Cubs offense chugging along.