Starlin Castro (STAFF PHOTO/PAM DAVIS)
Despite an early burst of good performance and despite the calls of some teammates to bring him north at the end of spring training, phenom shortstop Starlin Castro appears destined to start the season at Class AAA Iowa.
Through March 12, Castro was off to a .471 start (8-for-17 with a homer), and he was playing solid defense.
The Cubs reiterated their stance that the best course of action is to have Castro begin the season at Class AAA so he can play every day. As of now, Ryan Theriot is still the starter at shortstop for the Cubs. With backup Andres Blanco on the shelf due to a sprained knee, questions arose as to whether Castro could be kept as a backup.
The team has been reluctant to go that route because of the playing-time issue. However, if Theriot were to get hurt, manager Lou Piniella has said he'd like to see Castro in the big leagues.
Castro turns 20 on March 24, and last year was his first full pro season in the United States. He hit .302 with three homers and a .340 on-base percentage at high Class A Daytona before moving up to Class AA Tennessee, where he batted .288 and played well in the pressure of a playoff race.
The Cubs are giving Castro plenty of looks this spring, hitting him in the leadoff spot. Although his English is still coming along, Castro has plenty of mentors and supporters, among them left fielder Alfonso Soriano and third baseman Aramis Ramirez. All three players are from the Dominican Republic.
"Because he's 19, that doesn't mean he can't perform," Ramirez told reporters in Arizona as the rest of the team headed to Las Vegas for the weekend. "But at the same time, he's still a young kid and can get better at the minors and come up and be a great player. I don't think (age) is an issue.
"He is a mature kid. You can tell he doesn't get too high. He doesn't think he's the No. 1 kid, the top prospect. He acts like he's just another guy. He knows what he's got and he shows it on the field."
Theriot said at the beginning of spring training that Castro would have to "come get" the shortstop job. That may well happen. If it does, Theriot might be relegated to backup duty, or he could slide over to second base, where the Cubs plan to open the season with a platoon of Mike Fontenot and Jeff Baker.
--Ramirez exited Saturday's game due to right triceps soreness, but Piniella said the ailment wasn't serious. Ramirez's 2009 season was abbreviated due to a left shoulder separation.
--1B Derrek Lee, who hurt his left foot in a March 10 game against San Francisco, was sidelined the rest of the week. The injury was considered minor.
--RHP Carlos Silva righted his own ship in his second start of spring training, working three scoreless innings against the Padres after getting rocked by the White Sox in his first Cactus League start. Silva is battling for a rotation spot along with RHP Jeff Samardzija and LHPs Tom Gorzelanny and Sean Marshall.
If Silva works himself into physical shape -- he reported to camp heavy -- and can grab a rotation spot, that would probably be the Cubs' preference. He seems more suited to start, whereas the other pitchers in the battle can start and relieve.
"I'm very happy with the way I threw," Silva said after his second start. "I ... haven't seen that sinker for a long time, the one I was throwing in the bullpen. I saw the action and location and I was very excited to pitch."
--LHP Ted Lilly may be healthy enough to throw live batting practice over the March 13-14 weekend. Lilly is on the mend from last November's arthroscopic surgery to his pitching shoulder. The Cubs aren't counting on Lilly until mid-April at the earliest or May 1. However, Lilly has wanted to push his workouts as much as possible in an effort to beat the estimates. Lilly recently threw 35 pitches in a side session on the mound.
--Blanco is wearing a lighter brace on his right knee, which he sprained early in the Cactus League season. Blanco could be out another week.
--OF Xavier Nady is trying to downplay comments by Piniella that Nady wouldn't be able to play the field effectively until July. Nady is coming off Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Interestingly, he's been working on throwing mechanics with pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
"It's a work in progress," said Nady, who is seeing time as DH in spring games.
--Samardzija was hit hard in his second spring outing and first start. Facing the Brewers, Samardzija gave up five hits and four runs in two innings, allowing two homers. Samardzija cited a need to go with off-speed pitches, not just fastballs, early in the count. He's still very much in the mix for the fourth or fifth starter's job.
Rothschild has worked to smooth out Samardzija's mechanics. If the Cubs need a right-handed arm for the bullpen to start the season because of the injury to RHP Angel Guzman, that duty could fall to Samardzija, who has two starts and 44 relief appearances in parts of two seasons with the Cubs.
--Piniella said it was too early to talk about managing beyond this year, the final season of his contract.
"I'm perfectly comfortable the way the situation is," Piniella said. "I'm going to do the best job I humanly can do. Whether I was signed here for one year or signed here for five years, there would be no difference. My job is to get this team to win, and that's exactly what I'm going to focus on and nothing more."
Team president Crane Kenney raised eyebrows when asked by beat writers about a possible contract extension for Piniella, who has managed the Cubs since the 2007 season.
"If he feels well and wants to keep going, we'll have an interesting conversation," Kenney told the writers. "He's done a great job. He's raised the bar, and that's a little bit of the burden we all carry now."
BY THE NUMBERS: .630 -- Shortstops Theriot and Castro entered the weekend batting 17-for-27 combined, as Theriot tries to hold off Castro and remain the starter. The two had two doubles, one triple and one home run and 25 total bases.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it's time maybe Milton looked himself in the mirror. He just didn't swing the bat. He didn't get the job done. It's really unfortunate that you ... try to use the other areas for excuses." -- Cubs GM Jim Hendry, responding to comments made by former Cubs RF Milton Bradley, who was critical of the Cubs and Chicago.