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Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are early risers

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CARDINALS AT CUBS

Friday: Adam Wainwright (5-1, 1.20 ERA) vs. Travis Wood (1-3, 3.52), 1:20 p.m., CSN, 720-AM.

Saturday: Michael Wacha (2-2, 2.48) vs. Jake Arrieta (season debut), 12:05 p.m., CSN, 720-AM.

Sunday: Lance Lynn (4-1, 3.60) vs. Jason Hammel (4-1, 2.08), 7:05 p.m., ESPN, 720-AM.

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Updated: June 3, 2014 6:41AM



If there’s one thing the Cubs need to get right 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 nine 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 painful this process might be.

But, all of a sudden, through one cold, rainy, miserable month of baseball, the Cubs’ 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.

“I trust myself,” he said.

Rizzo, who struggled 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 seven-year contracts to the minors, Castro returned to the same ballpark in Milwaukee and hit two 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?

The next five months will go a long way toward 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 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. 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, and despite four errors, he looks stronger in the field, too.

More than once over the last two weeks, Renteria praised not just his production but 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.”

The Cubs might not have much to offer these next five months in the way of competitive drama or pennant races.

But how Rizzo and Castro go these next few months could be as important for the future of The Plan as anything Javy Baez or Kris Bryant do this year — “hugely important,” team president Theo Epstein said even before the season started.

So far, “I feel happy,” Castro said.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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