Starlin Castro knows he needs to start producing for Cubs


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.”

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?


2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.