Primed For Rebound?
Young 1B doesn't have far to climb
Anthony Rizzo doesn't need to have a huge comeback season to prove he's a viable player. All he has to do is one thing: raise his batting average.
One of the Chicago baseball myths of 2013 was that Rizzo was awful. He wasn't. Awful doesn't drive in 80 runs for a bad team. Awful doesn't hit 23 home runs in his first full year in the major leagues. And awful isn't a Gold Glove finalist. Rizzo played pretty well last year, but he often failed in the most important times of the game. That sticks with people.
Rizzo's .233 batting average was bad enough, but he hit just .191 with runners in scoring position. In games deemed "late and close," he wasn't much better at .219.
Rizzo also struck out 127 times. Turn a few of those strikeouts into hits and that will be the difference for him. Of course, that's easier said than done, and he doesn't want to sacrifice any of his power so, yes, there is work to be done at the plate. When he makes contact, he's at the league average in line-drive percentage (20 percent), so his problem is those strikeouts.
So what's more likely to happen: Rizzo strikes out even more, or he gets a few more hits to raise that batting average? His history -- granted it's limited and from the minors -- suggests he's not just a power hitter. His combined minor league average over six seasons is .303, including .331 and .342 his final two years. That suggests improvement over time.
In his first extended stay in the big leagues in 2012, he hit .285. He knows how to hit for a good average, but he's still learning how to do it. No other parts of his game suffered last year even when he did struggle at the plate.
Starlin Castro simply has a larger mountain to climb to return to being an All-Star player. Rizzo needs just two more hits a month to be respectable -- three or four more could see him as an All-Star himself. That's not asking for much, and Rizzo should be up to the task.
Jesse Rogers covers the Cubs for ESPNChicago.com.
Leadoff spot will help SS rebound
In his first two seasons, Starlin Castro collected 346 hits in his first 283 games, hitting .304 with 94 extra-base hits.
In his last two seasons, as the Cubs' brass made it clear winning wasn't an organizational priority, he collected 346 hits, but over 323 games, hitting .264 with 101 extra-base hits.
Last season, he bottomed out, hitting .245 with an 18 percent strikeout rate. In 2013, Castro had a wOBA (weighted on-base average, which "combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value," according to FanGraphs) of .280, the fourth-worst among qualifiers in baseball. It was .338 in 2011.
"There's no on-base and there's no slugging," then-manager Dale Sveum told me in early July, plainly translating some advanced statistics I trotted out.
Around that time, Castro told me he was done being selective at the plate and was going back to his old, aggressive ways. He repeated that idea to reporters throughout the season. It wasn't so simple.
All throughout last season, Castro seemed generally reflective about his struggles. It bothered him.
The Cubs lost 96 games last season, five fewer than the year before, but the season was a disaster mostly because of the travails of Castro and Anthony Rizzo, the two so-called cornerstones of president of baseball operations Theo Epstein's massive rebuilding project.
Now, both are looking for rebound years. Put me in the Castro camp. I think Rizzo, who had a better year in his first full season in the majors, is going be an up-and-down hitter for the next few years. Think Paul Konerko, who locked in as he matured.
Castro is supremely gifted at the plate, and I think hitting rock bottom will help him clear his mind. New manager Rick Renteria is talking about batting him leadoff, which is clearly a good idea. Castro is a .300 hitter with a .345 on-base percentage hitting first, with 27 percent of his hits going for extra bases.
Castro's regression is one of the great failures of the early days of Epstein's tenure. Epstein wasn't the one up there flailing, but it was obvious there were communication problems with his coaching staff.
Two hitting coaches, James Rowson and Rob Deer, schooled in different philosophies, plus Sveum, a former hitting coach, combined for confusion.
But a rebound year in 2014 comes down to Castro, a natural hitter, realizing his potential and taking responsibility for his own failures. I think he will.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.