Nick Castellanos on 2019 Cubs: ‘If you have a math final and you fail, did you study hard enough?’

As stand-pat Cubs seek improvement through culture change, All-Star Javy Baez admits, “I was getting ready during the game, which is not good. ...I feel like a lot of players were doing the same as me…I promise you guys this year is going to be [different].”

SHARE Nick Castellanos on 2019 Cubs: ‘If you have a math final and you fail, did you study hard enough?’
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Castellanos with the Cubs last year.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Nick Castellanos made such an eye-opening impact in the Cubs’ lineup and clubhouse last summer that he became a symbol for almost everything that happened — and didn’t happen — after the season ended.

“He’s reminding us what hunger looks like,” then-manager Joe Maddon said last August in an unwitting harbinger of the changes and attempted changes that followed,including Maddon being relieved as manager.

An offseason later, Castellanos — the free agent whom fans clamored the most for the Cubs to re-sign, and whom the Cubs couldn’t afford — sits in the Reds’ clubhouse on an early February morning, deftly trying to avoid pointing fingers as he answers questions about what might have been lacking or dysfunctional with the Cubs, who missed the playoffs in 2019 for the first time in five years.

“Last year?” he said, fixing a steeled gaze. “If you have a math final and you fail, did you study hard enough? We failed our math final.”

But why? How? As Castellanos pointed out, “That’s a talented [expletive] team. They have the talent to win the World Series.”

So was it the long list of injuries throughout the season that cost the Cubs a playoff berth? The poor bullpen performance in high-leverage situations? Or a complacency that team president Theo Epstein has alluded to for more than a year?

“That’s a question for them — that’s not a question for me, man,” said Castellanos, who might have been the most conspicuously intense competitor in Chicago after joining the Cubs from Detroit in a trade-deadline deal. “I don’t know these cats’ heart. I don’t know what gear they feel comfortable playing baseball in, and who am I to judge that? The only thing I can do is be the best version of myself every day, bro.”

Meanwhile, as Castellanos continued his work Sunday to try to make the Reds the best division rivals they can be, Cubs shortstop Javy Baez stood up in front of the Chicago media 35 miles away in Mesa and said what Castellanos would not: That Baez and others in the Cubs’ core were part of the problem.

“We had a lot of optional things, not mandatory,” Baez said of on-the-field, pregame work. “And everybody kind of sat back, including me. I wasn’t really going out there and preparing for the game. I was getting ready during the game, which is not good. . . . I feel like I was getting loose during the first four innings.

“I feel like a lot of players were doing the same as me. You can lose the game in the first inning. And sometimes, when you’re not ready and the other team scores by something simple, I feel like it was because of that. It was because we weren’t ready. . . .

“And I promise you guys, this year is going to be [different].”

More mandatory pregame work involving the whole team is something Epstein has referenced since last season. And a change in clubhouse tone and accountability was a clear priority in moves the Cubs were able to make this winter, including hiring manager David Ross and quality-assurance coach Mike Napoli and signing veteran Jason Kipnis to a minor-league deal to compete for the second-base job as a non-roster invitee.

“Talking with [first baseman Anthony] Rizzo, talking with Theo, talking with Nap, I think I can bring a lot [to the clubhouse],” said Kipnis, the two-time All-Star from Northbrook who sought a scouting report from his pal Rizzo on what went wrong last year.

“There’s that veteran side to me that’s been around, that’s seen things, that knows how to handle things. I’m not shying away from any competition, not shying away from whoever’s across the line against us. I’m ready to strap it on and go against them, and I think there’s a lot of guys here who feel the same way. Sometimes you just need a little fire set under you.”

As Epstein said at the end of last season, partly in reference to Castellanos, “We want to have a culture where, when a player steps in here midseason, he’s not providing energy — there’s already energy.”

To be clear, Ross has no intention of suddenly imposing a culture of hard discipline, nor hand-holding, he said.

“What Joe created here was really healthy,” Ross said. “But there also created a little bit of accountability on the players’ part when you have a lot of freedom. And it’s nice that Javy recognizes what he needs. That’s a powerful message.”

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