Bears

Cubs: Starlin Castro, and the future of the franchise

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Cubs: Starlin Castro, and the future of the franchise

PITTSBURGH There will come a time where the narrative will shift from what Starlin Castro could become to what he hasnt done yet.

Fair or not, thats just the game of expectations. At the age of 22, Castro has already put up two .300 seasons, played in the All-Star Game and led the National League in hits.

The Cubs marketing department had already put Castro up on billboards by the time Theo Epsteins front office inherited what may be a franchise shortstop to build their team around.

But people will want more, and expect to see a power surge and better defensive focus, even though Castro is already pretty, pretty good.

Ready or not, Cubs manager Dale Sveum said back in spring training that it was time to commit to Castro as the No. 3 hitter, for the future of the franchise.

By Friday, the Cubs were on a nine-game losing streak and had scored in four of their last 47 innings. Sveum responded by moving Castro to the No. 2 spot and signaling that Joe Mather will get an extended look hitting third and playing center field.

Its time, Sveum said. (Its) the combination of not really scoring throughout the whole season and Mathers been as good as anybody swinging the bat. Its going to give him a little opportunity to see what he can do.

I told Castro: Its not a demotion. Its just more shaking the team up. He was great about it (and said): Hey, I just want to win. I dont care where I hit in the lineup.

Thats an essential part of Castros personality: Nothing seems to faze him.

Just how high is Castros ceiling? That will be a central question as Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer try to lay the foundation for sustained success.

Castro entered Friday hitting .313 with two homers and 25 RBI, which was tied for third in the majors among middle infielders. Clearly, he can provide offense at a premium position.

But if the Cubs are going to mirror those Boston Red Sox teams that would grind out at-bats and play four-hour games, then Castro will have to improve his .323 on-base percentage. He has walked once in the past six weeks.

Does Castro profile as a No. 3 hitter for the future?

He hasnt done anything (wrong), Sveum said. Hes hitting .350 with men in scoring position. Hes hitting over .300. Thats pretty good out of the third spot. You might want more home runs.

But you take some of those balls he hit with the wind howling in, you could still have five or six home runs. Theres nothing hes done to be put down to the two spot. Its just more something to change to get everything going.

Sveum kept talking, using a Lou Piniella line from a few years ago: You never know, sometimes you pick a lineup out of a hat and you win. I wasnt going to go that far but

Castro has already played for three different managers. Hes done it in a big market playing for a marquee team (in fifth place). It would be interesting to see how he responds to the pressure of a pennant race, how he performs with a better supporting cast.

But before we get to that point, Year 3 in the big leagues could say a lot about the rest of Castros career.

Bears' Nick Kwiatkoski was a top-5 inside linebacker in 2017

Bears' Nick Kwiatkoski was a top-5 inside linebacker in 2017

The Chicago Bears selected inside linebacker Roquan Smith in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft with the expectation that he'll become an immediate starter and impact player on defense. But, was there a need at inside linebacker?

According to Pro Football Focus, Nick Kwiatkoski, who Chicago selected in the fourth round of 2016's draft, was a standout performer last season. He ranked third in the NFL among inside linebackers in run-stop percentage and was fourth-best in pass-rush productivity.

Kwiatkoski also wasn’t tagged for a missed tackle against the run all season. He still has to share time on the field with Danny Trevathan and newly-drafted Roquan Smith, but should be able to capitalize on a great sophomore year after being drafted in the fourth round from West Virginia in 2016. Overall, Kwiatoski was graded as the NFL’s 12th best inside linebacker, higher than both Spaight and Hitchens.

His 21.0 pass-rush productivity ranked fourth and came on the heels of his rookie season in which he ranked 10th in the same category in 2016.

Kwiatkoski didn't receive much fanfare last season but the analytics speak for themselves. He started six games (appeared in 11) and registered career highs in tackles (34) and sacks (two). He's an ascending player but his growth is likely to be stunted by Smith's presence. 

Chicago could view Kwiatkoski as the heir to Danny Trevathan's starting job. The Bears can move on from Trevathan with little consequence at season's end. His dead cap number drops to just $1.25 million in 2019. Kwiatkoski will be in the final year of his contract that season (2019), and if he hasn't earned a starting job by then, he's a near lock to sign elsewhere when his rookie contract expires. 

Kwiatkoski has proven he can produce when given a chance to play, something 31 other teams have certainly taken notice of.

Pro Football Focus: Bears rank near bottom-third of NFL in pass protection

Pro Football Focus: Bears rank near bottom-third of NFL in pass protection

If the Chicago Bears want to make a real run at the playoffs in 2018, the offensive line will have to do its part by keeping QB Mitch Trubisky upright. The offense is expected to be more pass-heavy under coach Matt Nagy and will depend on Trubisky having time in the pocket to go through his progressions and find the open target.

New offensive line coach Harry Hiestand should help that cause. He's universally praised as one of the best offensive line coaches in the sport and will be charged with getting a better effort from a unit that ended last season ranked in the bottom-third of pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus.

19. CHICAGO BEARS

2017 pass-blocking efficiency: 77.9

Best individual PBE: Josh Sitton, 97.4

Because of several crippling injuries, nine different players saw at least 100 pass-block snaps for the Bears in 2017. They gave up 152 pressures on 536 passing plays. The top performance came from left tackle Charles Leno Jr., who enjoyed the best season of his career and allowed just 24 pressures all season. Heading into the 2018 campaign, rookie guard James Daniels is penciled in to fill the shoes of the recently departed pass-blocking star Josh Sitton. Daniels performed well in pass protection during his final college season, allowing just 10 pressures on 371 pass-blocking snaps at Iowa.

The Bears will be without last season's top pass-protector, Josh Sitton, who was let go by GM Ryan Pace this offseason and signed with the Dolphins. 

Pass protection was once all about the play of the offensive tackles, but with the NFL's interior defensive linemen evolving into disruptive forces up the middle, guard play will be nearly as important. A healthy Kyle Long is critical. Chicago can't afford growing pains from James Daniels, either. Cody Whitehair returns to full-time center duties, a role he excelled at during his rookie season. 

Charles Leno should provide reliable play at left tackle. Bobby Massie remains a wildcard, but with little depth behind him, the Bears can do nothing more than hope his bad reps are limited in 2018.

With Hiestand in the fold and a healthy Long ready to compete at a high level again, the Bears' offensive line should be much improved this season.