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.”

Renfroe slam helps Rays sweep young Blue Jays in 1st round

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
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The Tampa Bay Rays gathered in front of their dugout and posed for a celebratory team picture they’re hoping will not be the last they take this postseason.

Hunter Renfroe hit a grand slam and the top-seeded Rays won a postseason series for the first time in 12 years, overpowering the young Toronto Blue Jays 8-2 Wednesday to finish a two-game sweep of their wild-card matchup.

And with a roster featuring just a handful of players who have posted impressive resumes so far, the AL East champs believe they’re nowhere near finished.

“We’ve been confident since Day One. So if we put the our heads down and just do what we’ve been doing and prepare like we’ve been preparing, the sky’s the limit,” winning pitcher Tyler Glasnow said.

Said manager Kevin Cash: “We have very good players first and foremost.”

“I understand the back of the baseball card stuff and some of our guys are not as established,” he said. “What we do have, what makes it formidable is that the entire roster is used to help us win games. We do that consistently during the season and are definitely going to do it in the postseason.”

Renfroe launched the first playoff grand slam in franchise history during a six-run second inning. Glasnow kept Tampa Bay ahead from there, allowing two runs – on a pair of homers by Danny Jansen – in six innings.

Mike Zunino hit a two-run homer off Blue Jays ace Hyun Jin Ryu during Tampa Bay’s big inning. Manuel Margot and Randy Arozarena also drove in runs as the Rays advanced to the AL Division series against either the New York Yankees or Cleveland Indians.

The next round starts Monday at Petco Park in San Diego. Renfroe is plenty familiar with the stadium – he hit 85 home runs in the previous three years for the Padres before being traded to the Rays last December.

“The opportunity in front of us is where you want to be,” Cash said.

The Rays celebrated with some hugs and handshakes after the final out.

Glasnow, who walked one and struck out eight before a small gathering of family and friends who were allowed to attend the series at Tropicana Field.

Ryu was rocked for a season-high seven runs in 1 2/3 innings, the lefty’s shortest outing of the season for the wild-card Blue Jays.

It was a disappointing finish for Toronto, which overcame a slow start to make a surprising run to its first playoff berth since 2016 with a roster featuring 19 players without previous major league playoff experience, including Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

“Great season. I’m proud of my kids to make it to this point,” second-year Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said.

“It’s obvious that the Rays are a pretty good team, that’s why they’re picked to go to the World Series,” he said. “In this series, we didn’t hit. We only scored three runs. That’s not enough to beat that team.”

The Rays, who won the opener 3-1 with a nice mix of pitching, defense and timely hitting, had dropped five consecutive multigame postseason series dating to the 2008 World Series.

A year ago, they beat Oakland in the AL wild-card game before losing to Houston in the division round – a five-game setback that nevertheless heightened team expectations heading into this season.

Ryu signed with the Blue Jays in free agency last winter after being an All-Star with the Los Angeles Dodgers and finishing second in NL Cy Young Award balloting in 2019.

The 33-year-old lefty had the AL’s fourth-best ERA this season. And, his career mark of .295 is third-best behind Clayton Kershaw (2.43) and Jacob deGrom (2.61) among active pitchers with at least 700 innings pitched.

Ryu’s impressive credentials meant nothing Wednesday.

The Rays began the first inning with three straight hits and scored their first run on Manuel Margot’s one-out single. Ryu escaped a bases-loaded jam by striking out Willy Adames, however his outing got worse the next inning.

After Zunino’s homer made it 3-0, Tampa Bay loaded the bases again on a double, walk and shortstop Bo Bichette’s second error of the day.

Renfroe, obtained from San Diego in an offseason trade that sent Tommy Pham to the Padres, hit his grand slam into the left field seats to extend the lead to 7-0.

“They were getting hits off all my pitches. I don’t think they were necessarily sitting on one or something like that,” Ryu said through a translator. “I just didn’t have a good game.”

“We have a lot to be proud of, we really do,” Jansen said. “We knocked on the door and next year we’re going to be ready to go through it.”

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: 1B Rowdy Tellez, who had a pinch-hit single in Game 1 Tuesday, remained out of the starting lineup. He was placed on the 10-day IL on Sept. 9 with a right knee sprain and missed the rest of the regular season.

Rays: INF Yandy Diaz (right hamstring strain) started at third base, his first game since Aug. 31.

UP NEXT

The Rays will play in the AL division round for the sixth time in franchise history, with all of the appearances coming since 2008.

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