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Rizzo, Castro start season strong

The Cubs' Starlin Castro is having a bounce-back season after struggling in 2013. He and Anthony Rizzo are reviving faith in the Cubs' rebuilding effort.
The Cubs' Starlin Castro is having a bounce-back season after struggling in 2013. He and Anthony Rizzo are reviving faith in the Cubs' rebuilding effort.

If there’s one thing the Cubs need to get right this season to regain traction and credibility in their rebuilding process, it’s finding the right answer to what became a $101 million question in 2013.

Nine figures committed in the span of 9 months to 14 combined contract years for Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo looked visionary, daring and shrewd about this time last year.

Within months, it looked premature, risky and indicative of how long and painful this years-long, underfunded process might take.

But all of a sudden, through one cold, rainy, miserable month of Cubs baseball this season, the team’s few bright spots include the Moneyball boys at shortstop and first base.

As Rizzo says, “It’s really early.”

But Castro – the two-time All-Star derailed last year by ill-advised tinkering by too many coaches – looks stronger and more confident, from the clubhouse to the batter’s box to the field.

“I trust myself,” he said.

Rizzo, who struggled all season with men in scoring position and against left-handers last year, is performing well in both areas, and has the overall look of a more mature, comfortable hitter.

“I’m not trying to do too much,” he said, “just taking what they give me.”

It’s impossible to say how much of it has to do with a new manager and coaching staff hired in part to provide “love before tough love.”

Castro already was undertaking a new physical and mental approach to his offseason before Rick Renteria was hired as manager; Rizzo said he followed the same routine he always has.

But maybe it’s no coincidence that barely a year after former manager Dale Sveum publicly threatened to send the players and their 7-year contracts to the minors, Castro returned to the same ballpark in Milwaukee and hit a pair of home runs in a victory Sunday.

“I’ve got my mind really strong after last year,” Castro said.

Will it last? Are they proving they’re the players management said they were by giving them the big contracts – Rizzo in particular, who hadn’t played a full season when he got his?

The next 5 months will go a long way to answering that. But it’s not a bad sign that they’ve started this strong during generally pitcher-friendly conditions early in the season, against some of the tougher pitching staffs in the league.

Rizzo’s four-walk game Wednesday in Cincinnati put him in the top five in the league in walks for April (18), and ninth in on-base percentage (.407). He opened that game with a two-run homer.

“If you’re overaggressive [in the big leagues], they’re going to pick you out and bury you with it,” he said. “They’re going to find a weakness if you’re aggressive, so you’ve got to really swing at your pitches. I think the more I continue to play this game, the more selective I’ll be, and if walks come with it, they do.”

A stronger Castro is slugging at a rate he hasn’t before (.471), and despite four errors he looks stronger in the field, too.

More than once over the past 2 weeks, Renteria praised not just his production, but also his energy and focus.

“He’s improving his game,” Renteria said. “Right now defensively, he’s playing probably as good as you guys have seen him in a while.”

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