What Starlin Castro’s return to Wrigley Field means for Cubs and Yankees

What Starlin Castro’s return to Wrigley Field means for Cubs and Yankees

Once upon a time, the Cubs put Starlin Castro on a billboard opposite Derek Jeter, using the New York Yankees to sell tickets to Wrigley Field during the 2011 season that would lead to a franchise reckoning.

In this upside-down world, the Cubs are now the rock-star team, box-office attraction and TV draw wherever they go, while the Yankees are now trying to copy elements from the defending World Series champs, getting younger, more athletic and building toward the future instead of throwing money at every problem.

Deep down on some level, this bothered Castro, who felt like he missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity after taking a lot of heat for five fifth-place teams on the North Side. Trading Castro to the Yankees during the 2015 winter meetings allowed the Cubs to sign World Series MVP Ben Zobrist and “Embrace The Target.”

But at some point on Friday, the Wrigley Field sound system will blast “Ando En La Versace,” Castro’s walk-up song during that leap forward in 2015, when the Cubs won 97 games and two playoff rounds and the fans started rhythmically clapping for a lightning-rod player.

Still only 27 years old, a streaky hitter with great hand-eye coordination might finally be putting it all together. Castro is batting .362 with five homers and a .945 OPS and on pace for his fourth All-Star selection, helping lift the Yankees back into first place in the American League East and maybe accelerate their rebuilding plan.

“He was a great teammate here,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He was not an excuse-maker. When anything went poorly, he stood tall, I thought. You got to like everything about him, so I’m very happy for his success. I’m looking forward to saying hello to him.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs will ride out boom-and-bust cycles with Javier Baez because the upside is so great]

Maddon remembered Castro sitting across from him in the manager’s office in the old Wrigley Field clubhouse when the Cubs decided to move Addison Russell to shortstop in August 2015. Instead of an awkward conversation that could have disrupted the team, Castro reacted to the news like a professional, transitioned to second base and finally experienced playoff baseball in Chicago.

“He didn’t blanch,” Maddon said. “He didn’t make an excuse. He didn’t cry. He didn’t scream: ‘What are you doing?’ Nothing. I said, ‘Listen, you’re not going to play for a couple days. I’m not quite sure how we’re going to get this working again. I want you to start working out at second base.’ Not a whimper.

“It was outstanding on his part. And he’s taken it and he’s run with it – literally – to the point now where he’s in a really good position with a very good ballclub. I know he can handle the big lights in New York.”

Castro might be one of the few players who could find The Bronx to be a less-intense environment, or at least a place where he could blend into the background more. Friday’s tribute to Castro will be a reminder of how good this generation of young Cubs has it – and why a stable big-market franchise can think about a Yankee-level dynasty.

Between his age-20 debut in 2010 and the 2015 National League Championship Series, Castro played for Lou Piniella, Mike Quade, Dale Sveum, Rick Renteria and Maddon. During that time, Castro worked with at least seven hitting coaches – Rudy Jaramillo, James Rowson, Rob Deer, Bill Mueller, Mike Brumley, John Mallee and Eric Hinske – plus a manager with a strong offensive philosophy (Sveum) and Theo Epstein’s front office trying to implement a Cubs Way approach.

“It’s difficult for an organization – period – when you’re constantly changing things over like that,” Maddon said. “When you do the philosophy changes annually, it’s really a lot of mixed messages that occur. So a young guy like that, probably his best resource there was that he was so good that he was kind of immune to all this in some ways.

“I know the perception. Different people view things differently and maybe some of it was deserved. I’m not sure. But they had gotten on Starlin a little bit about different items.

“Again, my experience was that he was outstanding when we were together here. But it’s not easy, man, when you’re constantly changing coaches, managers. That kind of stuff is very unsettling for the group.”

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

If the season ended today, Javy Baez may be your National League MVP.

Of course, the season isn't ending today, only the first half of the 2018 campaign is.

He flashed his skills again over the weekend — scoring the game-winning run Friday, posting a 5-RBI game Saturday and then drove in the Cubs' first run in their 7-4 victory Sunday to close out a sweep of the Padres.

Entering the All-Star Break, Baez should be the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.

For starters, he's the best player on the best team in the league.

Thanks to a recent hot surge by the Cubs and an ugly weekend for the Brewers (who have lost 6 straight), Baez and Co. will go into the break with the best record in the NL. 

Baez, meanwhile, leads the Cubs in WAR and nearly every offensive category — OPS, slugging percentage, homers, RBI, runs scored, doubles, triples, total bases, stolen bases and hits.

And that's not even saying anything about his glovework at any position on the infield or dynamic baserunning.

He's on pace to become the first Cubs player to drive in 125 runs since Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Baez also is on track for a 30-30 season — something only Sosa accomplished in a Cubs uniform in 1993 and 1995. 

El Mago will enjoy his week in the Home Run Derby and as the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, but those shouldn't be the end of his accolades this year if he can find a way to keep this pace up in the second half.

What other NL candidate would be a better choice for the MVP right now?

Baez is tied for the league lead in RBI. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar is just behind Baez with 70 RBI, but he also has 70 fewer at-bats than the Cubs star due to a platoon to begin the year. 

Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are also having great years, but the Reds are nowhere close to a playoff spot. 

Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are also having very good seasons on teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, but how do you deny the best player on the league's best team?

After all, where would the Cubs be without Baez this season? 

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, the pitching staff has had all kinds of consistency/health woes and Willson Contreras has yet to find his power stroke at the plate.

At the very least, "El Mago" has been the most important player on the North Side of Chicago during the first 3.5 months of 2018.

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Cubs first-round pick Nico Hoerner made his debut with the Class-A South Bend Cubs, and he did not disappoint.

The 23-year old shortstop showed off impressive hops during an acrobatic grab in the topf of the second inning in his first game with the South Bend Cubs. Hoerner will surely be an exciting defensive prospect with ability like this.

As far as offense goes, through four at-bats at South Bend, Hoerner is batting .500, and this comes after he hit .318 with a home run and two RBI through seven games with the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs Class A short-season affiliate.

Here is to hoping we continue to see big-time plays from Hoerner.