Starlin Castro? Addison Russell? Cubs see wide-open possibilities

13 Comments

It didn’t take long for the Starlin Castro rumors to start up again – if that trade speculation ever even stopped.

For all the growing hype and win-now expectations, the Cubs are still very much in a wait-and-see mode. That makes 2015 a pivot point for The Plan, an All-Star shortstop and arguably baseball’s best farm system.

“No agenda going into this year,” Theo Epstein said.

The Cubs confirmed the sad beginning to Triple-A Iowa’s season: Javier Baez is taking a leave of absence to be with his family after his sister, Noely, died on Wednesday night at the age of 21.

Epstein is a believer in Baez’ talent and toughness, so the president of baseball operations will let this all play out, knowing that the 2015 group shouldn’t be the best team during this competitive window.

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs are starting C.J. Edwards in Tennessee bullpen]

Even if you’re in love with Addison Russell – and you think you know the answer to the Castro question – it still leads to all sorts of follow-ups.

When will things click for Baez at the plate? Where will Kris Bryant play defensively? How does Arismendy Alcantara fit into the picture? Where is this payroll going? When will the business side deliver the TV megadeal? What, exactly, are the San Diego Padres, New York Mets and Seattle Mariners (or insert any other rumored team here) thinking?

“They can play together,” Epstein said. “Is it likely that they all play together and we bring in no one from outside the organization? No. The most likely outcome is that we keep a lot of these guys and we sign a free agent or so over the years and we make a couple trades, too. Big trades. That’s most likely.

“But my point is, when I say they can all play together, that’s a direct answer to the question: ‘What are you going to do with all these shortstops?’ Well, your three shortstops can play second, short and third. And Bryant can play third or either corner. I think (Kyle) Schwarber can catch and Alcantara can play second or he can play center. And (Albert) Almora can play center when he’s ready.

“They have a lot of versatility and there’s a way that they all fit together. It’s not like we’re sitting there with five first basemen wondering what the hell we’re going to do with them.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs being cautious with pitching prospect Pierce Johnson]

The Cubs haven’t been inclined to pay the price in terms of prospects and salary for someone like, say, Cole Hamels. The Philadelphia Phillies aren’t particularly high on Baez, either. The Cubs could simply wait for what’s shaping up to be a banner class of free-agent pitchers – Jordan Zimmermann, David Price, Jeff Samardzija – next winter.

Russell made a great impression in spring training with his smooth defense at shortstop and serious attitude inside the clubhouse, showing maturity for a 21-year-old who’s played three games about the Double-A level.

Baseball America’s No. 3 overall prospect lived up to the hype, but Russell’s most impressive move might have been silencing Joe Maddon. At least that’s how the manager with no mute button remembered their meeting the morning the Cubs sent Bryant, Baez and Russell to minor-league camp.

“Addison Russell, how bout this kid?” Maddon said. “Nobody’s talking about him. (But) I couldn’t tell him what to work on. I’m not (kidding). He’s that accomplished at that age.

“(Addison’s) sitting in there talking and I had nothing. I was lost. Just keep doing what you’re doing, basically.”

[MORE CUBS: A viewer’s guide to new Cubs manager]

While Bryant Watch became the national story, Russell is the other Scott Boras client who could eventually impact the 2015 Cubs.

“Absolutely, he would be able to help us this year,” Maddon said. “I totally believe that.”

Russell had been a late bloomer coming out of Pace High School in Florida, needing time to change his diet and reshape his body, really putting himself on the map later in the scouting process.

Russell fell to the Oakland A’s with the No. 11 pick in the 2012 draft, or five spots after the Cubs grabbed Almora, the first player selected by the Epstein administration.

The A’s hoped Russell would be able to give their major-league lineup a jolt at some point last season – until he tore a hamstring and got healthy enough to become a headliner in the Jeff Samardzija Fourth of July blockbuster trade.

“The biggest thing with him would be just to understand his body,” Maddon said. “A lot of the young players, to me, don’t really understand nutrition and things of that nature. I really try to emphasize (that) because you want to keep your body well and full of energy to play through September and October.”

Castro hasn’t played any meaningful games past, uh, the IRS filing deadline, maybe Memorial Day?

It’s not Castro’s fault the Cubs have finished in fifth place for five years in a row, but he sure takes a lot of heat for a three-time All-Star who just turned 25.

Before you ship Castro out of town, let’s see what he can do on a good team, how focused he will be in a pennant race, where his game can go with an established leader and a cohesive clubhouse.

Remember, Maddon is Castro’s fifth manager in six seasons and the shortstop remains under club control through 2020, so there’s no reason to rush into a deal.

Castro already knows this is a big year for him personally.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs should feel urgency to win now at Wrigley]

“Oh yeah,” Castro said. “I feel really good. I’m starting to feel great, offensively and defensively. I think we got a nice group. We can be together and we can do something.”

Castro made it happen during the seventh inning of Wednesday’s 2-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. He drove in Anthony Rizzo with a line-drive single to left field for the season’s first run, hustled to second base on the throw and then scored on Miguel Montero’s sacrifice fly.

Castro also struck out during a first-and-third, one-out situation in the fourth inning, and committed an error in the eighth. But the Cubs are in a place now where they can pick each other up and everything doesn’t have to revolve around Starlin all the time.

“We’re going to have a pretty fun year,” Castro said. “We can put something together and get a lot of wins.”

Astros owner Crane expects to hire new manager by Feb. 3

8 Comments

HOUSTON (AP) — Houston Astros owner Jim Crane expects to hire a new manager by Feb. 3.

The Astros need a new manager and general manager after AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow were fired Monday, hours after both were suspended by Major League Baseball for a year for the team’s sign-stealing scandal.

Crane said Friday that he’s interviewed a number of candidates this week and has some more to talk to in the coming days.

Crane refused to answer directly when asked if former Astros player and Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was a possibility for the job. But he did say that he had spoken to Biggio, fellow Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell and former Astros star Lance Berkman in the days since the firings.

“We’ve talked to all of our Killer B’s,” Crane said referring to the nickname the three shared while playing for the Astros. “They’ve contacted me and they’ve all expressed that they would like to help. Berkman, Bagwell, Biggio have all called and said: ‘hey, if there’s anything I can do, I’m here for you.’”

“So we’ll continue to visit with those guys and see if there’s something there.”

Crane says his list is still rather extensive and that he hopes to have it narrowed down by the end of next week. He added that he expects most of Hinch’s staff to stay in place regardless of who is hired.

Crane has enlisted the help of three or four employees to help him with the interview process, including some in Houston’s baseball operations department.

“We compare notes,” he said. “I’ve learned a long time ago that you learn a lot if four or five people talk to a key candidate and you get a lot more information. So that’s what we’re doing.”

Crane’ top priority is finding a manager with spring training less than a month away, but he said he would start focusing on the search for a general manager after he hires a manager. He expects to hire a GM before the end of spring training.

“We should have another good season with the team pretty much intact … so I don’t know why a manager wouldn’t want to come in and manage these guys,” he said. “They’re set to win again.”

The penalties announced by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday came after he found illicit use of electronics to steal signs in Houston’s run to the 2017 World Series championship and again in the 2018 season. The Astros were also fined $5 million, which is the maximum allowed under the Major League Constitution, and must forfeit their next two first- and second-round amateur draft picks.

The investigation found that the Astros used the video feed from a center field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s odds of getting a hit.

With much still in flux, Crane was asked what qualities are most important to him in his next manager.

“Someone mature that can handle the group,” he said. “Someone that’s had a little bit of experience in some areas. We’ve just got to find a leader that can handle some pressure and there’s going to be a little bit of pressure from where this team has been in the last few months.”

Despite his comment about experience, Crane said having been a major league manager before is not mandatory to him.

“We made some mistakes,” he said. “We made a decision to let that get behind us. We think the future is bright. We’ll make the adjustments … people think we’re in crisis. I certainly don’t believe that.”