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Cubs put defense under the microscope

StarlCastro (right) Alfonso Soriano head practice fields spring training. | Ross D. Franklin~AP

Starlin Castro (right) and Alfonso Soriano head to the practice fields at spring training. | Ross D. Franklin~AP

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Updated: March 28, 2012 8:12AM

MESA, Ariz. — The first day new Cubs manager Dale Sveum got a look at his kid shortstop in the field, he told Starlin Castro not to wait on ground balls.

By Sunday, the instruction was about Castro’s shoulders, head movement and picking up his target quicker.

The full squad has been together for only three days. At this rate, Sveum might be hoarse by Monday.

As Sveum said on the first day, “It’s a work in progress. There’s a lot of things I saw that he definitely needs to work on.”

That has been the story of Castro’s defense for his nearly two-year career. Defense also has been the Cubs’ Achilles heel for much of the last decade.

Consequently, it’s one of Sveum’s biggest focal points.

“That’s probably the biggest obstacle of all,” said Sveum, who inherits a team that ranked last in the majors in fielding — by a 10-error margin — last season.

They’ve made more errors the last two seasons (260) than any other team in the big leagues and have ranked near the bottom in fielding for the last three.

“I think we have enough guys that if they hit the way they’re supposed to hit, we’re going to have a decent enough offense,” Sveum said. “And if guys have career years, we can have a great offense.

“But the defense has got to get better. Whether it’s positioning or the routine plays, whether it’s understanding how important double plays are, all those things.”

On paper, the Cubs already look like a better fielding team with the addition of quick and agile Ian Stewart at third base. New right fielder David DeJesus should be at least as strong as Kosuke Fukudome was.

The bigger questions involve how solid Bryan LaHair will be as Gold Glove first baseman Carlos Pena’s replacement, how the new staff manages Alfonso Soriano’s late-inning playing time and how much better Castro can get at short after he led the majors with 29 errors last season.

With a lineup that doesn’t bring any guaranteed power sources and a pitching staff that will rely more on depth than Cy Young potential, improving the fielding will be critical.

“It’s not just errors that come into play, either,” Sveum said. “It’s the awareness of what’s going on, who’s on the mound, where to play, the score of the game, depth when there are two outs, the situation. These are all the things we’re talking about and getting ironed out to where we can nullify a lot of hits that I think [opponents] got last year.

“Defense is everything, whether it’s [pitchers’ practice], pitching and catching the ball and throwing to the right bases and hitting cutoff men.”

That was a focus Sunday for the first time in camp.

“I thought it was probably one of the best first cutoffs-and-relays days I have ever seen,” Sveum said.

If the biggest potential for improvement is the 21-year-old Castro, Sveum said he seems to be taking it seriously and showing encouraging signs.

Castro was quick to say “defense” when asked the first day what he wanted to improve most.

“He’s been good so far,” said Sveum, a former shortstop. “He started off a little slow, but the few things I’ve asked him to do and [infield coach] Pat [Listach] has asked him to do he pretty much is doing.”

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