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

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

If 2020 season is canceled, which players would be hurt the most?

Miguel Cabrera
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Last week, I went over a few teams that stood to be hurt most if there were to be no 2020 season as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Today, we will look at some players who may be adversely effected by a lost year.

Milestones

Players chasing milestones, especially those towards the end of their careers, would be stymied by a lost season. Tigers DH and future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera is the first one that comes to mind. He is 23 home runs short of joining the 500 home run club. Though he hasn’t hit more than 16 in a year since 2016, he would likely have at least hit a few this year and would have had an easier time getting there in 2021. He turns 37 years old in 10 days. Cabrera may be under contract through 2023, but it is not clear that his age and his health would allow him to play regularly such that he would be able to reach 500 home runs if the 2020 season were to be canceled. (Cabrera is also 185 hits shy of 3,000 for his career.)

Mike Trout has 285 home runs for his career. It’s almost a given that he would get to 300 and beyond in 2020. He is currently one of only 13 players with at least 250 home runs through his age-27 season. The only players with more: Álex Rodríguez (345), Jimmie Foxx (302), Eddie Mathews (299), and Ken Griffey Jr. (294). Trout likely would have also reached 1,000 runs for his career, as he is currently at 903. Losing a full season could really make a difference where he winds up on the all-time leaderboards at the end of his career.

Veteran catcher Yadier Molina will be a free agent at season’s end, though he and the Cardinals have expressed interest in a contract extension. He turns 38 this summer and is 37 hits shy of 2,000 for his career. Even if this season never happens, Molina will likely join the 2,000 hit club in 2021 whether or not he signs a multi-year extension. Molina is also 84 RBI shy of 1,000 and 21 doubles shy of 400.

Free Agents

Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts and Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto headline the free agent class heading into the 2021 season. Even if there eventually is a 2020 season, or something resembling it, teams are losing money across the board and that will result in stinginess in the free agent market. Make no mistake, Betts and Realmuto, as well as Trevor Bauer, Marcus Semien, and Marcus Stroman will still get paid handsomely, but they likely won’t get as much as they would following a typical year. The players that really stand to get hurt are the mid-tier free agents, whose cost won’t match their relative upside — players like James McCann, Howie Kendrick, Yuli Gurriel, DJ LeMahieu, Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Turner, Michael Grantley, Marcell Ozuna, Jackie Bradley Jr., Jay Bruce, and Josh Reddick.

2020-21 Draftees and International Free Agents

At the end of March, MLB and the MLB Players Association reached an agreement on a deal covering issues including service time, pay during the pandemic, and the amateur draft. In exchange for players on active rosters getting credit for a full year of service time whether or not there is a 2020 season, the league got the right to shorten the 2020 draft to five rounds and the 2021 draft to 20 rounds. The league also gained the right to delay the start of the 2020 and 2021-22 international signing periods.

The MLBPA effectively sold out what will be their future union members. A shortened draft this year and/or next year would mean that players who would otherwise have been drafted this year will go undrafted and thus will either become unsigned free agents or return to the draft next year as part of a crowded pool of players. Likewise, pushing back the international signing period will add more players to the market at the same time. This, obviously, benefits ownership as a surplus of labor diminishes those laborers’ leverage.

Bounce-back Candidates

Players coming off of injuries or otherwise down years in 2019 were hoping to use 2020 to bounce back, reestablishing themselves in the league. Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani didn’t pitch at all last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery and was hopeful to rejoin the starting rotation at some point in the first half of a normal 2020 season. We learned yesterday that Ohtani is expected to throw off a mound “soon.” If a 2020 season does happen, it likely wouldn’t begin for another couple of months at minimum, which should afford him enough time to get into pitching shape.

Ohtani’s teammate and perennial Gold Glove Award candidate Andrelton Simmons played in only 103 games last season due to an ankle injury. He mustered a meager .673 OPS as well, compiling just 1.9 WAR, his lowest total in any season since debuting in 2012. In 2017, he peaked at 7.8 WAR and put up 6.3 the following season. Simmons will become a free agent after the 2020 season, so he most certainly needed a healthy and productive 2020 to maximize his leverage on the market.

Reds first baseman Joey Votto, now 36 years old, is coming off of the worst offensive season of his career. He hit .261/.357/.411 with 15 home runs and 47 RBI in 608 plate appearances, continuing a downward trend. He registered a 167 adjusted OPS as recently as 2017, but that declined to 126 in ’18 and 98 last year. The Reds, back to being competitive, were definitely banking on a bounce-back year from Votto. (Votto, by the way, is also 56 RBI short of the 1,000 milestone for his career.)