Facing up to their future

CHICAGO -- On Tuesday night, Starlin Castro hit perhaps the nadir of his season.

He hit eighth.

Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum penciled him into the penultimate spot in the lineup. If Travis Wood were pitching, Castro might have been ninth.

Meanwhile, slumping Anthony Rizzo found himself in the 3-hole again after a sick day Monday.

Rizzo shrugged off questions about his struggles before the game, but they're obvious to everyone. His power numbers are OK, but his hitting approach is out of whack.

He's not struggling quite like Castro, but in some ways, he's just a beneficiary of better optics and scattershot power.

At only 24 and playing in his first full major league season, Rizzo is now expected to be the face of the lineup. And he is. Like Rizzo, the Cubs hit homers and doubles, but they're not what Sveum calls "winning hitters." While the focus for most of this season has been on the Cubs' minor leagues and the contentious renovation of Wrigley Field, it's clear Castro and Rizzo, the organization's so-called major league core, need some renovating, too.

The Cubs didn't expect Castro and Rizzo to carry this team to a playoff berth this year, but after Chicago locked up both to club-friendly extensions -- Castro last August and Rizzo this past May -- it's reasonable to assume the Cubs expected them to be able to adjust and succeed at a reasonable rate.

Instead, they've regressed. That happens to young hitters, but for the Cubs, it's a shame it's happening to both of them.

At the home opener, I asked Cubs president Theo Epstein whether being on a bad team could slow the development of Castro and Rizzo especially. He flipped the scenario.

"When you ask how important is it for them to be on winning clubs, they are what's going to make us winning clubs," Epstein said.

Or a losing club.

After watching them struggle and thinking about the arcs of their young careers, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer can see the other side.

"You bring up a guy like Rizzo and bat him third every game as a pro, Castro ever since day one is batting top of the order, I think it's a difficult thing as a young player," Hoyer said Monday. "Your assimilation process is more difficult when you're the guy they're focused on getting out as opposed to hitting seventh in the order.

"Kolten Wong comes up for the Cardinals and he bats seventh and he's a nice player to have, but everyone's focused on other guys. It's a difficult thing for guys to break into a team that doesn't have a lot of offensive depth."

With Alfonso Soriano, the last of the high-priced hitters of yesteryear, shipped out to New York, the onus is on Castro and Rizzo to produce.

Instead, Castro is hitting eighth because he's being outperformed by Donnie Murphy. Rizzo keeps his spot out of necessity.

As Epstein said to me in April, it's an "unrealistic panacea" to think all the ballyhooed prospects in the organization will pan out. Same goes for these two.

Will owner Tom Ricketts give his front office a credible big-market budget this offseason? If he doesn't, expect more struggles next year.

And if Castro and Rizzo get detoured again, who will protect all these young studs when they're finally ready to play?

Who teaches them how to be winners in the bigs?

The lack of winning players -- players who have been on winning teams -- is a substantial concern for the front office going into the future. Baseball America rankings and blogger fantasies don't make a real contender.

As the front office deals with that, the Cubs would just like to see Castro and Rizzo build a little confidence during fantasy football season. It won't carry over, but it wouldn't hurt.

"Confidence is obviously the key factor here in all of this," Sveum said. "When guys lose their confidence, it's always going to show on the field."

The Cubs are rightly trying to stay positive with the left-handed Rizzo. Every player has a season he would like to throw out, Sveum said. He also noted you have to take the struggles of hitters such as Rizzo in the proper context.

"Plenty of guys throughout the league, guys that have been really good hitters, are hitting .240 and just not living up to their media guides, so to speak," he said. "This is also the best pitching I've seen in baseball in my 30 years.

"You're dealing with an era right now in baseball with teams having Nos. 3 and 4 starters that are kind of No. 1s. You have bullpens where everybody is throwing 96 mph now. Hitting is a lot tougher than it used to be. It's easier to have tougher years, down years."

Hoyer, who helped draft Rizzo in Boston and has traded for him twice at San Diego and Chicago, prefers to look at the bright side when asked about Rizzo's season.

"In some ways, there's pretty good silver linings to his year," Hoyer said. "He's going to walk 70 times, which is really impressive for a young guy. He's got a ton of extra-base hits. I'm surprised his batting average is where it is.

"In the minors, when I've seen him and last year, he was able to get his singles and go the other way more. I think he's struggling with his mechanical things. I do think the power is there and the patience is there. I think when the batting average goes back up, you're going to see the player everyone expected."

Hoyer's optimism isn't unfounded, although a little misleading.

Rizzo hit eight homers in April while otherwise struggling at the plate.

Since then, he has been pretty consistent with two homers in May, two in June, three in July and three so far in August. Rizzo went a month without a home run between May 18 and June 21. His average went up to .282 on May 18. But he's hitting .200 since the end of May. Rizzo went 0-for-4 on Tuesday, and three of those at-bats came with runners in scoring position. With a minimum of 100 at-bats, his .173 RISP average is the worst in baseball.

Most of his production has come against bad teams. Against the strong pitching staffs of the likely playoff-bound teams in the National League Central -- Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and St. Louis -- he's a combined 27-for-164 (.164) with one home run, nine doubles and 35 strikeouts. Like Sveum said, it's tough right now for a hitter.

Anyone can hit the Brewers. But Rizzo is searching for that even keel.

He might want to try being more aggressive. Compared to last season, Rizzo has seen 663 more pitches in 35 more games this year, but has only three more line drives, according to FanGraphs. He's swinging less outside the strike zone, taking about 5 percent more pitches in general, but the problem is he's not doing anything with the fastballs.

Any slump is attributable to not laying off the breaking pitches and driving those few crushable fastballs, Sveum said.

"An every-day player gets 600 at-bats, averaging one major [fastball about groin-high] an at-bat; that's four a day," Sveum said. "What you do with those four balls that you can drive out of the ballpark dictates your whole day. The difference is the guys that are the elite center about three or four of those. What centering is, I don't care if they pop it up to the catcher, it's on the four inches of the barrel."

One member of the organization noted Rizzo is particularly struggling against "velocity" pitchers this year. The hitter doesn't buy it.

"Look at my numbers," Rizzo said. "My fastball numbers are the best there are."

They're not terrible, like Castro's, but not quite "the best there are."

According to FanGraphs, when you look at 100 fastballs thrown to him (wFA/C), Rizzo is producing 0.11 runs compared to average, compared to 1.22 last season.

After pitchers get an 0-1 count on Rizzo, he was hitting .149 going into Tuesday. Last year, that number was .275. Even Castro, who's putting together one of the worst hitting seasons in baseball, is hitting. 251 after 0-1.

In his first at-bat Tuesday against Dan Haren, Rizzo swung and missed at a first-pitch cutter before taking a cutter in the dirt. Then he just missed on an 87 mph split-finger fastball, pulling a towering shot just right of the foul pole. Haren got him out on an 80 mph splitter that Rizzo lofted weakly into right.

Like a lot of struggling hitters, Rizzo is getting jammed inside with cutters. According to FanGraphs, he produced 5.18 runs over average per 100 pitches against cutters last year and minus-0.06 this season.

Rizzo doesn't want to hear how great the pitchers are nowadays.

"They're throwing balls down the middle, too," he said. "I'm just not hitting them the way I'm supposed to. It doesn't matter what the pitchers do; I'll never give them the credit that some of them deserve because I know I can hit any pitch at any given time."

There's reason to believe both Castro and Rizzo will straighten themselves out. Castro is a two-time All-Star, and Rizzo has been through this before.

He struggled in his debut season with San Diego before righting his swing in the winter league. Rizzo killed Triple-A pitching last year and was one of the few bright spots for the 101-loss Cubs.

Both players have learned how to play with losing teams. Maybe Epstein was right and it's up to them to make the Cubs winners.

Can they handle it? You know what they say around these parts: Wait 'til next year to find out.