Cubs buck trend, present strong All-Star candidates
Samardzija, Hammel, Rizzo and Castro make solid case for Midsummer Classic
CHICAGO -- Nothing against Bryan LaHair, but it probably wasn't the best sign for the Cubs' future that a first baseman who would play only 195 games in the Major League joined Starlin Castro to represent the team in the 2012 All-Star Game.
Since sending eight players to Yankee Stadium for the 2008 game, the Cubs have had five All-Stars in five seasons. Can anyone name all five?
We'll give you time to solve the riddle, holding the answer until the end of the column.
If you've been following the Cubs, you know how quickly their players have come and gone in recent years, including some of their All-Stars. You may have missed this recent development: even after losing their last three games to the Reds and Pirates, the Cubs are 20-17 since May 16. That's not far behind the 23-16 Bucs in the tightly bunched National League over this stretch.
This is progress.
"Timely hitting, pitching and defense," manager Rick Renteria said. "The whole thing, it has come together. The guys are just playing, having fun. We've [had] a couple of tough ballgames here the last few days, but they keep grinding, keep playing. They're learning a little bit about each other. They've developing a relationship. They continue to develop an idea of who they are and how they work together."
And, as always, hope is on the way. Kris Bryant continues to tear the cover off the ball after being promoted to Triple-A, which makes it easier to take mixed results from Javy Baez at Triple-A and Albert Almora in Class A Advanced. The organization's pitching depth is better than conventional wisdom suggests, although most of the power arms reside in bullpens, not rotations.
This is the last season that Theo Epstein's regime will have to pay players signed when Jim Hendry was the general manager. They'll be out from under the bad contracts once they've paid the last of a $13 million commitment when they sent Alfonso Soriano to the Yankees.
This is also progress.
But here's arguably the best sign of progress: for the first time since perhaps 2008, you can generate a really good argument about who should go to the All-Star Game from Wrigley Field.
There's a chance the Cubs will get a couple of players, as they did when Castro and LaHair went to the game in Kansas City two years ago. But if they get only one, as they have in four of the last five seasons, should it be Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, Anthony Rizzo or Castro?
The case for Samardzija is simple. He's got stuff, and he knows how to use it. That's why Samardzija joins the Rays' David Price at the head of the list of pitchers being scouted by contending teams.
One thing Samardzija doesn't have is a representative won-loss record. He's 2-6 despite a 2.53 ERA and 97 strikeouts, which ranks seventh in the NL. The latter total would be much higher, but Renteria has babied Samardzija since allowing him to throw 126 pitches on May 5. He's averaged only 95 pitches in his last nine starts. Samardzija's record probably should be along the lines of 9-3, which would make him a no-brainer selection.
Hammel, who signed to a one-year contract after injuries caused him to average only 23 starts the last three seasons, is 6-5 with a 2.99 ERA. He has a 2.8 WAR and a 1.02 WHIP, which ranks behind only Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, Julio Teheran and Josh Beckett in the NL.
Then there are Rizzo and Castro, who have reasserted themselves after seemingly taking backward steps in 2013.
Rizzo, a Cubs clubhouse leader along with Samardzija, is doing everything you want a first baseman to do. He's done a good job defensively at first, while hitting .291 with 17 homers and 44 RBIs. Rizzo is second in the NL in walks, and among regular first basemen, he ranks first in OPS (.934). He's had a ton of big hits, many of which have left the ballpark.
Castro, who has hit all over the order during his five seasons, has thrived since Renteria anchored him in the cleanup spot behind Rizzo. He's hitting .287 with 11 homers, 23 doubles (most among NL shortstops) and 47 RBIs.
Rizzo has probably been the most consistent of these four candidates, and he has given himself a great shot to make his first trip to the All-Star Game. But it wouldn't be a shock to see Samardzija, Hammel or Castro on manager Mike Matheny's roster, either.
One last bit of business -- All-Star trivia.
The Cubs' most recent All-Stars were Ted Lilly (2009), Marlon Byrd ('10), Castro ('11-12), LaHair ('12) and Travis Wood ('13). It's going to be fun to see what the names are in the next five years.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.