5/2/2014 3:09 P.M. ET
Cubs looking ahead after tough April
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- The Cubs finished the first month of play with 17 losses, the most since the 1997 team dropped 19 in April.
"Obviously, the record is disappointing," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Friday. "One thing we haven't done a good job of in three consecutive years is we've fallen on our face right out of the gate in April. It's really been kind of [like the movie] 'Groundhog Day' -- closer issues in April and bullpen woes.
"I think all three years, we've had a better run differential and lost one-run games early. That's been really frustrating. We should be better than our record. Ultimately, you are who you are."
Manager Rick Renteria admitted he does look at the standings, but not now.
"I really do look at the standings at the end," Renteria said. "That's when either we're going home or we're staying. Right now, I just worry about today."
Wood, Lilly pitching in for Cubs' Draft scouting
CHICAGO -- Former Cubs pitchers Kerry Wood and Ted Lilly are scouting some of the prospective first-round picks for the upcoming First-Year Player Draft, including Texas high school right-handed pitcher Tyler Kolek.
"The plan is to have those guys in the Draft room when we convene," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said of Wood and Lilly, both of whom are on the team's staff. "It's good for us to hear their opinions, and it's good for their development to go out and see these guys.
"I know it's been a lot of fun. Kerry went down and saw Kolek, who is the big high school right-hander in Texas, so I think it was probably like watching himself in the mirror."
Wood, 36, was the fourth overall pick in the 1995 Draft. Lilly, 38, was named a special assistant to Hoyer and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein in March.
The three-day First-Year Player Draft will begin on June 5 at 6 p.m. CT, and it will be broadcast live on MLB Network and MLB.com. This year, the Cubs' have the fourth overall pick, and the 45th overall pick in the second round.
MLB.com projects four pitchers as the top four selections in this year's Draft, including Kolek. The others include lefty Brady Aiken of Cathedral Catholic High School in California; left-hander Carlos Rodon of North Carolina State and right-hander Jeff Hoffman of East Carolina.
"One of the things that's a challenge in the Draft is that it's sort of a moment in time," Hoyer said Friday. "How a guy is throwing the last four weeks of his junior season could have a big impact on where he goes in the Draft. You want to see him doing well, but you want to try to take his college career and whole body of work into account.
"If you had a Major League Draft and only focused on a guy's last four starts, you could make some pretty big mistakes. It's important to show health, but also to show what a guy has done his whole career."
The Cubs do need pitching in the organization, but they have indicated they will take the best player available.
Cubs still searching for consistent closer
CHICAGO -- Cubs pitcher Jose Veras, on the disabled list with a strained left oblique, was scheduled to join Double-A Tennessee and begin a rehab assignment soon. Whether he'll return as the team's closer is yet to be determined.
Chicago pitchers have one save opportunity in the last 16 games, dating to April 12, and the team's six save opportunities are the fewest in the Majors.
Right now, manager Rick Renteria is relying on matchups, although Hector Rondon has emerged as a possible closer candidate. The other options include Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm.
"I think ideally we'd develop a closer from one of the guys we have on the roster," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Friday. "I think we have some guys who have the stuff and makeup to do it. Hopefully, it'll click with one of these guys. I do like the way our guys have thrown. I feel when we have a series, we match up well with other teams' bullpens. I don't think teams are excited to face us in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings."
Despite the closer struggles, Cubs relievers have combined to toss 14 scoreless innings over the last six games before Friday's series opener against the Cardinals, including scoreless contests in all five games of the just-completed road trip. The bullpen has not had six straight scoreless games since a nine-game stretch April 29-May 8, 2011.
Veras' struggles were a surprise. The right-hander has walked 10 and served up six hits over 5 2/3 innings in six games. Last season with the Astros, he walked 14 over 43 innings. And in five innings in the postseason last October with the Tigers, Veras did not walk a single batter and gave up five hits.
"It shows you the perils of free agency," Hoyer said. "He walked 14 guys as a closer in 40-something innings with the Astros last year, and had no walks last year in the postseason with the Tigers and comes here and can't throw strikes. I'm hoping it was physical and maybe a little mechanical. It wasn't that long ago in October that the Tigers were leaning on him to get their most important outs."
Castro cleaning up since lineup change
CHICAGO -- In the first month of last season, Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro batted .277 in 26 games, and he finished with a .245 average. This year, he's batting .308. What's the difference?
"I think he had a bad year last year, but I also think he never lost sight of the fact that he's a good player, and he's proven that again," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Friday.
Castro has thrived in the cleanup spot in the Cubs' lineup, batting .450 (9-for-20) since moving there.
"I think it doesn't hurt [Anthony Rizzo] to have Starlin there," manager Rick Renteria said. "Do I see Starlin as a prototypical fourth hitter? Not necessarily. It just works that way right now."
Hoyer gave Castro credit for working hard to turn things around.
"When a player has a bad season, I think that sometimes spirals on him," Hoyer said. "We don't have a Jumbotron [at Wrigley Field], but sometimes you look up and see .210 or .216 on-base [percentage] and it's kind of demoralizing. I do think players look at it and think, 'There's nothing I can do to turn around a bad season,' and it kind of snowballs. I think the beauty of this game is you hit the reset button every September and October."
Renteria has noticed that Castro is more relaxed and has developed a good routine with hitting coach Bill Mueller.
"Everybody is working with him well and you just have to give him credit, because he's playing the game and going out on a daily basis and performing," Renteria said of the shortstop.
Hoyer downplays Garza's comments
CHICAGO -- General manager Jed Hoyer said it's up to the Cubs to show other free agents that this is the team to play for, despite Matt Garza's comments.
Last week, Garza offered some advice to Jeff Samardzija, saying the Cubs pitcher should "pitch your way out of there," if he doesn't want to stay in Chicago. Samardzija will be a free agent after the 2015 season. Garza was 21-18 in 60 starts for the Cubs from 2011 until last July, when he was traded to the Rangers.
"I told [Samardzija], 'It doesn't matter, dude. You play in Chicago,'" Garza told reporters in Milwaukee last week. "I was there, and I lost 30 wins in three seasons. It's not your fault. You pitch your way out of there."
Garza now is with the Brewers, who are in first in the National League Central.
"He's on a team that's winning and he feels he's in a position to make comments," Hoyer said Friday. "I think it's on us now to flip that script and show that we're a place that people want to be, show that we're a winning organization.
"[His comments don't] really bother me," Hoyer said. "I think being traded is a hard thing emotionally for people. Even in a situation like that, where we had a good relationship with him, I think there's probably a feeling of rejection, for lack of a better word. People say emotional things when asked about it because there's some resentment, that's OK.
"We have to deal with those comments, and I really don't feel like until we're winning and we prove we're an organization that he'd want to play for, I don't think we can comment on it. It's his opinion and he expressed it."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.