GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Dale Sveum hasn’t had to deal with lineup questions as much as his immediate predecessors, Lou Piniella and Mike Quade, who were constantly peppered with queries about where Alfonso Soriano should be batting.
Sveum has Soriano set in the cleanup spot behind Anthony Rizzo, and David DeJesus is ensconced in the leadoff spot.
So where does that leave Starlin Castro, who was supposed to develop into a No. 3 hitter but has bounced around the lineup in his 3 years in the majors?
Though Castro primarily batted second, third and fifth in 2012, Sveum will start him in the No. 2 hole this season and see how it goes.
“We’re definitely going to start out that way, just because of lineup reasons,” Sveum said. “If everybody lives up to their capabilities, hopefully we don’t have to do anything [and] everything works according to the way we’d like it to with the left-right-left-right [balance] all the way through the lineup.
“Right now, we’re going to start the season with him second. I think he’s matured so much in a year that he might end up [back] in that RBI spot.”
On a team that struggled offensively in 2012 and didn’t add any run producers in the offseason, using the player with the second-most RBIs (78) in the second spot may seem counterproductive.
Nate Schierholtz, who drove in 21 runs in 108 games last year with the Giants and Phillies, is slated for the No. 5 spot against right-handers, behind Soriano. In 282 career plate appearances in the No. 5 hole, Schierholtz has a .218 average and a .621 OPS.
But Sveum has few options. The Cubs would love to have a left-handed power hitter for the No. 5 hole. But with Ian Stewart out and Rizzo batting third, there are no other left-handed options except Luis Valbuena.
Castro batted .298 with a .359 OBP in the No. 5 hole last year, as opposed to .267/.306 in the second spot. He’s developing power as he matures, but will he have to change his game if he’s hitting up in the lineup full time?
Castro is not exactly an on-base machine, with 100 career walks in 445 games.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know if it’s short term or not,” Sveum said. “I’m just waiting for him to develop a little bit into a more patient hitter, not a guy who feels like he has to drive in a run every time somebody’s in scoring position and swing out of the strike zone.”
Castro is having a strong spring despite missing time with a hamstring injury, with a .406 batting average and .444 OBP. Last year, DeJesus had a .358 OBP from the leadoff spot, third among NL hitters. So if those two can provide the Cubs with a reliable 1-2 punch, there should be more than enough RBI opportunities for Rizzo, Soriano and Schierholtz.
It’s really all up to Castro, who said one of his goals is to get back to being a .300 hitter.
“We know he’s a good hitter and he’s going to put the ball in play, and a lot of times he has a magic wand [with flare singles], but his mechanics allow a lot of that stuff to happen,” Sveum said. “Good hitters have mechanics where their bat stays in the strike zone longer than others, so they get a lot of ugly-looking hits sometimes, but it’s because of the mechanics.”
The Cubs will take ugly hits, no matter where Castro winds up in the lineup.