Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro ensuring 2014 isn't a lost season for the Cubs

Thursday May 1st, 2014

Anthony Rizzo dives in to score one of his three runs on Wednesday night against the Reds. (AP) Anthony Rizzo dives in to score one of his three runs on Wednesday night against the Reds. (AP)

This season was never going to be about results, at least in terms of win-loss record, for the Cubs. Their 9-4 win over the Reds on Wednesday that moved the team to 9-17 didn't really matter all that much. The two players who starred, however, do matter. And so long as Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro keep hitting, it might be a successful season on the North Side of Chicago.

Rizzo and Castro combined to go 4-for-5 with a homer, two doubles, five walks and three RBI, leading the Cubs to just their second win in their last seven games. Rizzo hit the homer, giving him four on the season. After suffering through some terrible luck in 2013, Rizzo appears to be developing into the reliable middle-of-the-order bat the Cubs sought when they acquired him from the Padres for Andrew Cashner before the 2012 season. The 24-year-old is now hitting .283/.407/.457 in 113 plate appearances.

Gone is last year's ridiculously unfortunate .258 BABIP. Rizzo is still hitting more grounders than fly balls, which is good for his batting average and bad for his power numbers, but he's also hitting more line drives than ever before, posting a 26-percent line-drive rate. His strikeout rate is down to 16.7 percent from last year's 18 percent, and his walk rate is up to 13 percent, two full percentage points higher than it was last year.

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Then there's Castro. After racking up 529 hits and making two All-Star teams before his 23rd birthday, Castro was one of the worst everyday players in the majors last year. He had already proved himself an impatient hitter in his first three seasons, but last year that he struggled to turn balls in play into hits. His numbers were down across the board, hitting just .245/.284/.387 in 705 plate appearances. Entering his age-24 season, he had reached the first crossroads of his career.

Despite having his maturity questioned more times than anyone would care to remember, Castro has rebounded from his nightmare 2013 season with the quiet confidence of the veteran he already is. After going 3-for-4 with two doubles, a walk and an RBI on Wednesday, Castro is hitting .308/.349/.454 with four homers, five doubles and 14 RBI this season. His second double of the night was a rocket off the wall in straightaway center that just missed being his fifth home run on the year. Perhaps even more encouraging, he took a four-pitch walk with runners on first and second after Reds reliever Nick Christiani walked Rizzo, also on four pitches. The Castro of old likely would not have heeded the message in the four-pitch free pass right before him, and jumped out of his shoes at the RBI opportunity. Thankfully for the Cubs, there is evidence that Castro is a thing of the past.

Castro still isn't all that keen on taking a walk, having done so six times (one intentional) in 109 plate appearances this year. However, his strikeout rate is all the way down to 12.5 percent after being 18.3 percent in 2013. He's showing growth in all his batted-ball stats, notably improving in line-drive rate and HR/FB ratio this year.

Interestingly, while their profiles would suggest that Castro would be the No. 3 hitter and Rizzo the cleanup man, their parallel hot streaks over the last week have had Rizzo hitting third and Castro fourth. It seems unlikely that Rick Renteria would mess with success, and Rizzo has always been a guy who projected comfortably into either the three- or four-hole. Much of the focus in the Cubs' organization remains on the guys who have yet to make it to the big league club. But for Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler to pay dividends when they get to the majors, there has to already be a foundation in place built upon the shoulders of the only two position players currently on the roster who are guaranteed to be a part of this team's future. Rizzo and Castro are hard at work, constructing that foundation this year.

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