Cubs

Starlin Castro leaves Cubs with questions to answer at shortstop

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Starlin Castro leaves Cubs with questions to answer at shortstop

The idea that Starlin Castro would elevate his performance as the Cubs ramped up their rebuild – and played games that actually matter – hasn’t become a reality yet.

Joe Maddon doesn’t blast his players in public, putting a positive spin on things and making the media happy with an amusing anecdote, a clever one-liner or the perfect sound bite for TV and Twitter: “Rock and roll.”

Castro has played for five managers in six seasons, becoming a focal point for Cubs fans/bloggers, the Chicago talk-show circuit and the Twittersphere. Maybe the perception would be different if Castro had Maddon deflecting attention – and a better team around him – during those five fifth-place finishes.

But if the Cubs are really going to contend this year, then Castro’s defense has to be a concern.

You could hear some boos during the ninth inning of Wednesday night’s 3-0 loss to the Washington Nationals at Wrigley Field. Castro had just committed his second error on a groundball to shortstop, giving him 11 this season. The announced crowd of 34,215 had thinned out considerably by then, but enough frustrated fans had seen enough to make some noise.

“He’s done a lot of good things,” Maddon said afterward, defending Castro. “I would say the problem mostly with him has been the routine play more than anything else. And I really believe that you can get a major-league caliber infielder to make the routine play. And he’s been doing that for awhile. He’s had a couple of mistakes – I don’t disagree. But for the most part, I’ve been fine with him at shortstop.”

[MORE: Scherzer out-duels Lester in battle of aces Wednesday]

Maddon wondered if Castro had carried his last at-bat out onto the field, still stewing over grounding out with runners on second and third to end the eighth inning. Maddon also pointed out Castro had bailed out Addison Russell, turning a nice double play after a bad flip from the second baseman.

Yes, it’s a long season, with the Cubs having almost 72 percent of their schedule remaining. No doubt, Castro should have built up more capital as someone who earned three All-Star selections before his 25th birthday and already has almost 900 career hits.

But Washington shortstop Ian Desmond (13) is the only National League player who has committed more errors than Castro so far this season, and it makes you wonder how long the Cubs will wait before they make a defensive shakeup with Russell or Javier Baez.

The Cubs certainly didn’t lose this game because of Castro, who got two singles off Max Scherzer (6-3, 1.51 ERA) on a night where the $210 million ace looked like a Cy Young Award frontrunner. And it was Russell’s throwing error that helped create an unearned run in the fourth inning.

But Castro hasn’t taken that leap forward as an offensive force yet. He hasn’t homered in almost three weeks. He’s generated one extra-base hit in his last 14 games, his OPS sinking to .637. A batting average that had risen to .333 on May 1 has since dropped to .270.

Castro’s line-drive percentage (16.0) would represent a career low, while his groundball percentage (60.7) is soaring toward a career high, according to the online database at FanGraphs.

[NBC SHOP: Buy a Starlin Castro jersey!]

On the 25-and-under infield, Castro is playing next to two rookies in Russell and third baseman Kris Bryant. If the Cubs want to play deep into October, they need to know what they will get from their shortstop, because this team isn’t all that sharp defensively, and the mistakes will now be magnified even more.

“We work on it constantly, man,” Maddon said. “If you’ve noticed, it’s a lot of routine stuff. We’ve also made a lot of great plays the last couple days. We have made a lot of really good plays on defense, and then the one that seems to bite us is the more routine stuff. That’s just repetition and technique.

“Just being fundamentally sound, that’s all that is, and we’re working on it always. I will never denigrate the work of this group or the coaching staff. They’re outstanding. It’s just a little bit of a youthful thing. We just got to get better.”

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

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Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: