The Chicago Cubs have made some interesting lineup changes over the past few games, but the most notable change to the group has been the full-time replacement of Starlin Castro as the team’s everyday shortstop.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon made it clear that Castro was not just getting days off when this whole process started out, and he has consistently kept the shortstop out of the lineup as the team’s offense has picked up steam. On Tuesday, Maddon did toss Castro a bit of a life preserver, as he announced that the 25-year old would get reps at both second and third base during batting practice:
The move comes as Maddon looks to get Castro more playing time, but the question that immediately has to be asked is this: should the team be making that big a push to get Castro into the lineup? After all, putting Castro at a place like third base would likely mean that Kris Bryant would be sitting out, and putting him at second would either push Chris Coghlan or Kyle Schwarber out of the mix.
There are ways around benching those players to get Castro playing time, but time and again this season the infielder has shown that he is incapable of making the adjustments necessary to break out of his slump, and his regression was a big part of the reason why the team’s offense was so putrid at times during the campaign.
Even with all of that being said, it’s understandable to a degree that Maddon wants Castro to continue to be a part of the Cubs’ lineup. Adding more quality bats is always a good thing for an offense as it goes through ups and downs, so hopefully Maddon will be able to strike a balance between giving Castro playing time without throwing off the hot streak of players like Russell and Schwarber.
On Friday afternoon, the Chicago Cubs were sitting at 13-8 on the season, Addison Russell had just hit his first career home run, and Jon Lester had pitched a gem of a game and gotten his first win in a Cubs’ uniform.
Everything, as they say, was coming up Milhouse.
Then, in the blink of an eye, everything seemed to unravel. The Cubs’ bullpen began to falter. Their starting pitching vanished. Their offense even vanished over the weekend as they were badly outscored and dropped two straight games to the Milwaukee Brewers. On Monday night, it appeared that they were back on track as they took a 5-0 lead in the first inning, but it all came undone as Travis Wood surrendered four runs and the Cubs ultimately lost the game thanks to some poor work done by their bullpen.
A quick perusal of social media after the game revealed plenty of anger within the Cubs’ fan base, and rightfully so. This was a game that the Cubs by all accounts should have won, and a combination of bad pitching and bad luck conspired against them as they dropped their third straight game and fourth in the last five games overall.
Amid all of that anger though, an interesting fact becomes abundantly clear: it feels good to get this worked up about baseball again.
For years now, a Cubs loss would be met by some eye-rolling and maybe an occasional hand-wringing gesture, but fans got over it. To paraphrase Heath Ledger’s Joker, it was “all part of the plan.” The Cubs needed to lose these games to give their young talent time to develop in the minor leagues, and they got some really high draft picks and made some serious trades as a result as they reshaped the entire roster from top to bottom.
Now, with a group of veterans brought in and the youngsters really starting to come into the big leagues, expectations are on the rise on the north side of Chicago. Every Kris Bryant at-bat is met with breathless anticipation as fans await his first home run. Every diving stop by Starlin Castro is fawned over at length. Every Anthony Rizzo stolen base elicits reminders that he has more steals than the entire Chicago White Sox roster.
These things are part of the allure of baseball, and it’s so nice to have them back.
So before you get too worked up about losing a game to the St. Louis Cardinals in early May, or before you rue the fact that the Cubs could easily be 17-7 or 16-8 at this point of the season, just remember this: how much more fun is it to care about baseball than it was to ignore it and wait for Bears season to start?
From one observer’s perspective, this is a heck of a lot better.
One game sample-sizes are a terrible way to judge the merits of a baseball player, but since my time in Arizona is so brief, I’m being forced to evaluate players based on just one game of action. Here are my snap judgments on some prospects for the Chicago Cubs, who fell in Arizona Fall League action to the Scottsdale Scorpions by a score of 2-1 on Monday night in Scottsdale.
Cates only faced one hitter in the bottom of the fifth inning, retiring Roman Quinn on a groundout to shortstop. It was a very well located pitch that he induced the grounder on, and I really wish that he had faced more batters in the game.
Unfortunately for me, all three of the Cubs’ hitters who started this game struggled at the dish. Hannemann was just 1-for-6 entering the evening, and he left without helping his average at all. In fact, Hannemann hit with runners in scoring position on three different occasions in the game, and he grounded out to first base, flew out to center field, and struck out in those situations.
Even though he had an off-day at the plate, Hannemann made up for it with a couple of nice defensive plays, including a slicing ball down the right field line that he was able to cut off and hold Tyler Austin to just a single. His throw to Addison Russell wasn’t perfect, but it got the job done as the Solar Sox looked to keep their hopes of winning the game alive.
Out of the four Cubs prospects that I saw on Monday, none impressed me the way that Russell did. No, he didn’t blow me away at the plate (although his sharply hit single to left field and his ninth-inning walk were both good to see), but his work with his glove was jaw-dropping.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, Russell (playing second base in this game) was positioned at normal depth against right-handed hitting Blake Miller. On an outside pitch, Miller lifted a fly ball that sliced down the right field line and looked like it was headed for trouble. Getting to full acceleration in just a few steps, Russell was able to somehow get under the ball and make a remarkable running catch to retire the batter.
Not content to let that be his only web gem, Russell came up with an even better one in the bottom of the seventh inning. Elias Diaz smacked a ball up the middle of the field, just eluding the pitcher. Sliding on one knee, Russell made an excellent pick of the ball, and from that knee he rifled a throw over to Dan Vogelbach at first, and when the Cubs’ first base prospect was able to scoop it out of the dirt, the runner was retired.
Both of those plays showed why Russell is such a highly touted shortstop. His range is incredible, his arm is strong, and most impressively of all, he made it look ridiculously easy. If Starlin Castro is looking over his shoulder during the 2015 season, fans will know why.
Vogelbach’s immediate comparison player is Javier Baez. He strides up to the plate looking like he can hit the ball a mile, but if anything offspeed came near the plate in this game, he was swinging and missing. He struck out with runners on second and third in the first inning, struck out again in his next at-bat in the third, and grounded out softly to third base in this third trip to the dish. He finished off the evening by grounding into a fielder’s choice in the top of the eighth inning.
Even though Vogelbach has struggled at the plate during AFL play (he’s now 1-for-11 with seven strikeouts and three walks), his glove work did give him something positive to build on. When pitcher Felipe Rivero fielded a high chopper near home plate, he ended up throwing the ball directly down the base line. Vogelbach not only was able to pick up the ball out of his hand (not an easy thing to do with a baserunner bearing down on you), but he was able to pick the one-hop throw out of the dirt to get the out at first base.
The Chicago Cubs have been cultivating their farm system for several seasons now under the regime of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod, and this fall the fruits of their labor will once again be on display when the Mesa Solar Sox take the field in Arizona Fall League action.
As part of the Solar Sox roster, the Cubs will send seven of their best prospects to compete in the league, and the list is an impressive one. The name that jumps out right away is shortstop Addison Russell, who was acquired by the Cubs in the Jeff Samardzija trade in July. Russell has been raking since being acquired by the team, slugging 12 home runs and driving in 35 RBI for West Tennessee. He also is sporting a very nice split of .297/.339/.560 in the 44 games he’s been there, and his defense has dazzled scouts and fans alike.
Russell will be joined on the Solar Sox roster by pitcher C.J. Edwards, who is arguably one of the top arms in the team’s farm system. In nine starts with West Tennessee, Edwards has a 2.25 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and is striking out 9.2 batters per nine innings. He has also surrendered just one home run in those 44 innings (he allowed one home run in 116 innings pitched in 2013), and even though his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a tad higher this season, he still is wowing fans at just 22 years of age.
First baseman Dan Vogelbach (15 home runs, 72 RBI in high-A ball this year), pitcher Gerardo Concepcion (3-2 with a 3.39 ERA in 58.1 minor league innings), pitcher Zach Cates (3-2 with a 4.15 ERA in high-A and Class-AA), outfielder Jacob Hannemann (8 HR, 49 RBI, 37 SB), and pitcher Ivan Pineyro (0-5, 5.46 ERA in 56 IP) round out the Cubs’ representatives on the Solar Sox.
The Solar Sox will kick off their season on Tuesday, October 7 at 2:35pm Central time against Glendale, and their first home game will be played the next day against Glendale at Cubs Park.