Cubs

Cubs challenge Starlin Castro to be a leader

784816.png

Cubs challenge Starlin Castro to be a leader

MILWAUKEE Everyone understood that Year 3 would be a revealing look into the type of player Starlin Castro could ultimately become.

Last year Castro thought those billboards opposite Derek Jeter were cool, and his Why not? attitude leads him to believe he could be a Cal Ripken Jr.-type, a franchise player who spends his entire career in one place.

A Cubs official once mentioned Edgar Renteria as a reference point. Ex-manager Mike Quade may have singled out Castro too often, but the tough love worked well for Miguel Tejada back when they were together in Double-A ball.

Castro is immensely talented, and still only 22 years old, but the mental lapses make you wonder sometimes.

Its my fault, Castro said. I know that I have to concentrate. (Its) a new day, (so) dont think about yesterday and dont let that bad kind of thing happen again.

Manager Dale Sveum had a talk with Castro on Tuesday, some 24 hours after the young shortstop forgot how many outs there were and kept jogging off the field, not throwing to first base on a potential double-play ball.

Sveum seemed to reach a breaking point after Mondays 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants, threatening to sit Castro and challenging him to get his head in the game.

Sveum watched Castro (3-for-5) respond with a good all-around game in a 10-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Youre not going to bench a guy for something like that, Sveum said. Youre going to bench guys for not playing hard or not preparing and things like that. Thats just one of those unfortunate things that happen and you try to eliminate (them).

Hes had a few incidents, obviously, but people forget that hes come a long way defensively. He hasnt made a fielding error in maybe six weeks now, so were forgetting about the big picture that the guys still hitting .300.

Beyond wins and losses, Sveums coaching staff figures to be judged on how young players like Castro develop.

For the most part, Sveum likes the way Castro has gone about his business, studying video and spray charts and buying into the defensive shifts and positioning. The manager appeared to be backing away from his last straw comments.

Im not reneging on what I said, Sveum said. He knows that its the last straw, meaning a number of things, not just something like a brain fart on the field. Its the whole package of doing everything you can to make yourself and the people around you better.

Alfonso Soriano essentially delivered the same message to Castro.

You take the talent that hes got, he (can be overconfident), Soriano said. You forget the part of the game thats most important mental. Hes got his ability physically, but sometimes mentally he doesnt even think about it, because he knows hes got big talent.

You can make an error throwing, drop the ball, but mentally its not acceptable. Maybe once, its acceptable, because we are human, but not a couple times.

You shouldnt underestimate the mental toughness it took to leave the Dominican Republic and get to the majors in less than 1,000 minor-league at-bats.

Castro also showed drive in learning how to speak English and becoming comfortable communicating with the media and people around the organization. Hes expected to take charge now.

All the great shortstops of all-time were always commanding the field defensively, Sveum said. Thats what goes with that position. You have to be the leader and understand that youre the one who makes everybody around you better, whether its your throws (or) the double plays (or) making sure somebodys in the right spot.

As Theo Epsteins front office ramps up the rebuilding project, how Castro responds the next four months will be telling.

Its his job to take control of the situation, Sveum said. Its that time where you got to step up and start making people better around you.

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”

What Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan trades mean for future of Blackhawks defense

What Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan trades mean for future of Blackhawks defense

After finishing 30th in goals against average (3.55) and 31st in penalty kill percentage (72.7) this past season, the Blackhawks are clearly making it a priority to patch up their defense this summer. And that's been evident with the acquisitions of defensive-minded defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta.

But it raises some interesting questions about the future of the Blackhawks blue line.

With the de Haan and Maatta additions, the Blackhawks now have five defensemen under contract through at least the 2021-22 season: Brent Seabrook ($6.875 million cap hit), Duncan Keith ($5.538 million), de Haan ($4.55 million), Maatta ($4.083 million) and Connor Murphy ($3.85 million). That's $24.8 million tied up to five guys.

The money isn't the primary concern, though. It's the limited amount of roster spots available. The Blackhawks don't have to immediately figure out how it's going to work a year from now and beyond, but it makes you wonder how the cards may eventually be shuffled.

Let's run through the situations:

— Erik Gustafsson had a breakout season and is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. He's obviously not part of the five current players under contract after next season, putting the Blackhawks in a spot where they have to consider trading him or be comfortable with letting him walk for nothing if he isn't re-signed. (They could always trade his negotiating rights after next season and pull off a sign-and-trade as well, if it came to that).

And even if Gustafsson is re-signed, the Blackhawks would then have six players locked up for the 2020-21 season and on, and that's enough to submit a lineup.

— Henri Jokiharju, who was drafted No. 29 overall in 2017, is probably ready to take the next step and become an everyday player. Where does he fit into the long-term plans?

— Adam Boqvist, who was taken No. 8 overall in 2018, likely needs one more year in the OHL before making the jump to the NHL, which would put him on a timeline to become part of the Blackhawks next season. Does he occupy that sixth spot if another one isn't opened by then?

— Nicolas Beaudin, who was drafted No. 27 overall in 2018, is expected to start the upcoming season in Rockford after four years in the QMJHL but might be NHL-ready by the 2020-21 campaign.

— And then there's Ian Mitchell, who's returning to Denver for his junior season and will serve as the team's captain. He's said all along that he intends to sign with the Blackhawks once he's finished with college, but does the organization value him enough to create a spot for him when he's ready?

To make things a little more complicated, the Seattle expansion draft is set to occur in 2021 and the same rules will apply as Vegas in 2017.

The Blackhawks have the option to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters and one goaltender. All players with no-movement clauses at the time of the expansion draft (and who decline to waive them) must be protected; Keith and Seabrook have a NMC. And all first- and second-year pros are exempt; Jokiharju would have to be protected.

As of this moment, the Blackhawks are likely to use the eight-skater option, but they will also have valuable forwards to protect. They're going to lose a good player one way or another, and it's probably going to come from the defensive group. All of this comes into play when weighing roster decisions for next season and beyond.

As stated above, the Blackhawks do not have to make an immediate decision on the future of their blue line corps. They can play out the 2019-20 season with the group as currently constructed. But the decisions the Blackhawks have to face next season could impact how Stan Bowman operates the rest of this summer and throughout the upcoming campaign.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.