Cubs

Starlin, Junior and the Cubs search for talent worldwide

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Starlin, Junior and the Cubs search for talent worldwide

SURPRISE, Ariz. Starlin Castro is a walking billboard at the academy in the Dominican Republic, where the Cubs think they can find the next big thing.

Castro and Alfonso Soriano train there during the offseason, and if they didnt work out hard, a team official once said, the Cubs wouldnt let them into the complex. The teenagers dont need to see big-leaguers coasting.

The little kids look at me like (Im at) the top, Castro said Wednesday. I hang out with everybody. I dont care that somebody says, Oh, why are you here? I (tell them): I passed through here. When I was a little kid, I was here, too.

The Cubs were probably slow to the game internationally that budget item fluctuated under Tribune Co. ownership and a new collective bargaining agreement will limit the amount they can spend in that market.

But going global has been a priority for chairman Tom Ricketts, whose family recently held a board meeting in the Dominican and unveiled plans for a new academy that will be part of a 50-acre development.

In assessing the organization from top to bottom, Theo Epstein found the technology to be lacking and had to bring in some of his own people. But the new president was pleasantly surprised by the pipeline that produced Castro.

We have one clear strength in our system overall our Latin American scouting and player development operation, Epstein said at the Cubs Convention. Its an outstanding operation. The players there are playing better fundamental baseball than any other Dominican academy Ive ever been in. It was really impressive. Its not a coincidence that weve developed a pretty nice game with Latin American prospects.

The next one to watch is opening eyes around Cubs camp.

The Cubs signed Castro and Junior Lake within almost three months of each other. Lakes bonus (110,000) was more than twice the amount Castro signed for. They played together on the same Dominican summer league team in 2007. The next year they were roommates in Arizona for rookie ball.

The first half of one season, Castro recalled, Lake played shortstop while Castro played second base. They switched positions for the second half.

Castro whos three days older and will turn 22 this month smashed all the timelines and rocketed through the system and emerged as an All-Star shortstop last season.

Lake split last season between Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee and batted .279 with 80 runs scored, 12 homers, 51 RBI and 38 stolen bases. Lake then hit .296 in the Arizona Fall League and stole 18 bases in 28 games.

The same thing that happened to me, Castro said. Thats happening with him right now. I said, Good luck and keep going. I talk to him a lot. Hes got a chance to be a superstar, too. Hes got a lot of talent. Hes ready.

Lake was signed in part by Jose Serra, the same scout who closed on Castro and became Carlos Marmols godfather. Special assistant Louis Eljaua who once helped the Boston Red Sox build their academy in the Dominican will be overseeing the construction for the Cubs.

There are reasons why Ricketts gave vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita whos bilingual and has run international operations a new four-year contract after the chairman fired general manager Jim Hendry.

Around last Thanksgiving, Epstein led a group of Cubs officials to the Dominican, where they scouted several players, including Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, who ultimately took a four-year, 36 million deal with the Oakland As.

The Cubs did a lot of background work on Cespedes, and theyve built up relationships and contacts throughout Latin America, which will matter whenever Jorge Soler, another Cuban defector, is declared a free agent. If Solers signed before July, it wont count against the cap imposed by the new labor deal, so expect the Cubs to be in a bidding war.

Looking toward the future, people around the Cubs say Lake has grown significantly taller in the last year or so. He appears to be around 6-foot-3, if not bigger, looking more like an NBA guard than a typical shortstop.

The guys a specimen with some kind of athletic body, manager Dale Sveum said. Hes got to just keep playing. He needs at-bats in games because thats a pretty good talent coming.

Though raw defensively, Lake is said to have a Shawon Dunston type of arm. Sveum has noticed Lakes offensive instincts, pointing out a delayed steal and a few good two-strike at-bats in the Cactus League. Could Lake play third base?

Sveum: Hes one of those athletes who could probably play anywhere on the field.

Could Lake be getting too big to play shortstop?

I dont think so, as long as youre athletic and you (can) move, Sveum said. Cal Ripken was pretty big. He did OK. (Troy) Tulowitzkis pretty big. He does just fine. So I dont think that has anything to do with it, especially (in this day and age) when you can have a two-way player possibly, somebody that hits home runs, catches the ball, steals bases, the whole package.

Two years ago, Ryan Theriot told Castro to come and get it. Less than three months later, the rookie took Theriots job. Castro considers Lake to be one of the first friends he made in the Cubs organization. In the future, this could be the left side of the infield.

Castros message is simple: I tell him: Be ready. You got a chance to play in the big leagues. Thats what you want, right?

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

A year ago, the Cubs world was in essentially the exact same place — trying to find answers for a season that ended earlier than expected.

There was only one difference: Time.

The 2018 Cubs woke up on the morning of Oct. 22 having been out of action almost three full weeks. That's a long time in terms of decompressing, letting your body heal and evaluating what went wrong.

A year ago today, Ben Zobrist was in the midst of trying to heal his ailing wrist after a third straight trip deep into the postseason.

A year ago today, Theo Epstein was roughly 48 hours removed from his annual end-of-season eulogy.

A year ago today, Kris Bryant was trying to catch his breath after what he called the most draining campaign of his life.

Yet we woke up Monday morning 19 full days removed from the latest iteration of Epstein's end-of-season eulogy, Zobrist is making light-hearted Instagram videos and Bryant is already nearly three weeks into the process of letting his left shoulder heal completely and adding strength.

Of course, that trio of Cubs figures would gladly trade in these extra few weeks of time off for another shot at the NL pennant, even if they fell short in the NLCS again.

Still, there's a lot of value in extra time off, especially after three straight falls where they went deep into October playing high-stress baseball. The Cubs absolutely will go in 2019 much fresher than they went into this year's spring training.

For example, Jon Lester threw 8.1 fewer innings this October than 2017 and 29.2 fewer innings than 2016. Zobrist played 8 fewer games this October than 2018 and 16 fewer than 2016 (he also won the World Series in 2015 as a member of the Kansas City Royals). That matters when players' ages start creeping up into the mid-to-late 30s.

It shouldn't take the sting out of the disappointing end to 2018 for the Cubs or their fans, but extra time off for these guys is certainly not a bad thing. 

The Cubs have already gotten the ball rolling on offseason changes, including replacing Chili Davis at hitting coach with Anthony Iapoce

On top of that, each individual player has now had enough time to evaluate why or how they went wrong offensively down the stretch.

"A full winter — especially this extra month that we unfortunately have — is a luxury in baseball," Epstein said. "There are things that come up all the time during the course of the season with teams and with individual players that you say, 'We'd love to address.' But that's so hard to address during the season because there's always another game tomorrow. 

"Guys are surviving. We have to wait 'til the offseason, then we can get right physically, then we can wade into the mental game, then we can address this swing change, then we can handle this fundamental. Well, we now have that luxury — unfortunately — of a full offseason. How do we take full advantage of this so we're never in this position again?

"We don't want to be a part of an offensive collapse in the second half again. We don't want to be part of losing a division lead late again. We don't want to be part of looking back and recognizing that, gosh, maybe a greater sense of urgency from Game 1 through 162 would've led to one more game and then we're still playing. We don't want to be part of that ever again, so we need to make good use of this time."

The early exit also helps to create a chip on the shoulder for each member of the organization. It's hard to see the Cubs spending much time in 2019 lacking the same "urgency" they had this summer. The painful NL Wild-Card loss will leave a bad taste in their mouths that can carry over all the way until next October. 

Like Lester said, sometimes you "need to get your dick knocked in the dirt in order to appreciate where you're at." 

We saw that play out on the North Side of Chicago from 2015 into 2016 and Cole Hamels has seen this script before with a young core of players in Philadelphia.

In 2007, the Phillies made the playoffs, but were swept out of the NLDS by the Colorado Rockies. They rebounded to win the World Series the next fall over Joe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays.

"That [2007 sweep] really kind of taught us what the postseason experience was and what it was to not just play to the end of the season and instead to play to the end of the postseason," Hamels said. "This is a tremendous experience for a lot of guys and you have to go through the hardships before you get to enjoy the big moments.

"I know there's a lot of players here that have won a World Series, but there's also a lot that didn't have that sort of participation that you would kind of look towards, so I think this is great for them. 

"It's exciting to see what they're gonna be able to do next year and the year after that because this is a tremendous team here with the talent that they have. It's gonna be a great couple years."

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

With MLB Hot Stove season about 10 days away, Cubs fans are on the edge of their seats waiting to see how Theo Epstein's front office will reshape an underperforming lineup this winter.

The first step in that will be determining if there is a future with Daniel Murphy in Chicago and if so, what that future might entail. 

Murphy's introduction to the North Side fanbase was rocky, but he drew rave reviews from his teammates and coaches for how he conducted himself in the month-and-a-half he wore a Cubs uniform. 

He also filled a serious hole in the Cubs lineup, hitting .297 with an .800 OPS in 35 games (138 at-bats) while spending most of his time in the leadoff spot, helping to set the tone. Extrapolating Murphy's Cubs tenure over 550 plate appearances, it would be good for 23 homers, 86 runs, 49 RBI and 23 doubles over a full season. That would be worth 3.4 WAR by FanGraphs' measure, which would've ranked third on the Cubs among position players in 2018 behind only Javy Baez (5.3 WAR) and Ben Zobrist (3.6). (By comparison, Baseball Reference rated Murphy a -0.2 WAR player with the Cubs due to a much worse rating on defense.) 

Murphy's performance defensively at second base left quite a bit to be desired, but it's also worth pointing out he had major surgery on his right knee last fall. The procedure wasn't just a cleanup — he had microfracture surgery and cartilage debridement and wasn't able to return to the field until the middle of June this summer despite an Oct. 20, 2017 surgery.

The Cubs will begin the 2019 season without a clear, everyday choice at second base and the lineup can use a guy like Murphy, who has a great approach each time up and leads baseball with a .362 batting average with runners in scoring position since the start of the 2016 season.

So could a reunion be in the cards?

"I wouldn't rule anything out," Epstein said the day after the Cubs' 2018 campaign ended prematurely. "It was a pleasure having Daniel here. He did a lot to right our offense right after he got here and contribute while being asked to play a bigger role than we envisioned when we got him because of some other injuries, because of our lack of performance offensively and then because of the schedule. He was asked to play a lot more than expected, than probably he was ready to based on the proximity to his knee surgery.

"So I think he's gonna have a real beneficial offseason, get even stronger and be ready to contribute next year. Which league that's in and for what team remains to be seen. But I certainly think he acquitted himself well here, was REALLY respected by his teammates. Our guys loved talking hitting with him. It was a daily occurrence. Long discussions about hitting with him, picking his brain. 

"We look a lot better with him than without him, so I wouldn't rule anything out."

There's a lot to unpack here. Epstein was refreshingly honest throughout his whole press conference and that continued with regards to Murphy.

For starters, notice how Epstein first said he wasn't sure "what league" Murphy will be playing in. The Cubs president of baseball operations is typically extremely measured when speaking with the public and he almost never says anything by accident.

Murphy will turn 34 April 1 and was never renowned as an elite fielder even before that major knee surgery. Meaning: The writing has been on the wall for over a year that the veteran may be best suited for a designated hitter role with his new contract and Epstein is clearly well aware of that perception/narrative.

The other aspect of Epstein's comments is how he began and ended his statement on Murphy — that he wouldn't rule anything out and the Cubs obviously thought it was a successful pairing.

It's hard to argue with that on the offensive side of things and his impact was also felt off the field, where he was praised often by his teammates and coaches for talking hitting with younger players like Ian Happ and David Bote. 

Imagine how the final 6 weeks of the season would've looked had the Cubs not acquired Murphy in the middle of August to agument the lineup. The Brewers would've probably nabbed the division lead well before a Game 163.

Still, Murphy's hitting prowess both on and off the field wasn't enough to help the Cubs lineup avoid a slide that led to a date with the couch before the NLDS even began. Epstein's statement about how the Cubs "look a lot better" with Murphy than without is probably more about how fresh the sting was from the inept offense that managed just 2 runs scored in 22 innings in the final two games of the season.

Given his consistency the last few years, his advanced approach at the plate and his (recent) unrivaled ability to come through in key spots, Murphy's bat would be a welcome addition to any Cubs lineup moving forward. 

But it would still be tough to fit Murphy on the Cubs' 2019 roster for a variety of reasons. 

For starters, if the Cubs truly have a desire to write out a more consistent lineup next year, it's tough to add another aging veteran to a mix that already includes Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 next year), especially when they both spend a majority of their time at the same position (second base) and shouldn't be considered everyday players at this stage in their respective careers.

Murphy's defense/range also doesn't figure to get much better as he ages — even with an offseason to get his knee back up to 100 percent health — and second base is a key spot for run prevention, especially in turning double plays with a pitching staff that induces a lot of contact and groundballs.

Offensively, Murphy isn't perfect, either. He's never walked much, but in 2018, he posted his lowest walk rate since 2013. He also struck out 15.7 percent of the time in a Cubs uniform and while that's a small sample size, it still represents his highest K% since his rookie 2008 season (18.5 percent). 

Then there's the splits — the left-handed Murphy hit just .238 with a .564 OPS vs. southpaws in 2018, a far cry from the .319 average and .864 OPS he posted against right-handed pitchers. That was a steep drop-off from the previous three seasons (2015-17), in which he put up a .296 average and .810 OPS against lefties.

Add it all up and Murphy's potential fit with the 2019 Cubs is questionable at best, especially if an American League team hands him more money and years to come DH for them and hit near the top of their order.

But like Epstein said, don't rule anything out.