5 for '14: Will Rizzo and Castro rebound?

Bounce-back seasons from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro would go a long way in the Cubs taking a big step in their development in 2014. Jennifer Stewart/USA TODAY Sports

MESA, Ariz. -- They return as the cornerstones of the Chicago Cubs' rebuilding strategy. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are the faces of the major league team now more than ever.

Most of the veterans have been dismissed in recent years in favor of younger replacements yet to see their potential. And pitcher Jeff Samardzija might be next to go -- putting even more of the spotlight on Castro and Rizzo.

Both had their issues last year. And if they’re going to lead the Cubs from here on out, they first have to lead on the field.

Missing most of spring training is the last thing Castro needed. Not when he’s trying to erase the bad memories of 2013. Career lows in batting average (.245) and on-base percentage (.284) and a career-high 129 strikeouts tell the story: It was an awful year.

A new bilingual manager was hired and a trainer was sent to the Dominican Republic to get Castro in better shape. The Cubs were taking no chances. They were going to put him in the best position to succeed at any cost.

Then the injury happened. At first, Castro’s right hamstring strain seemed less serious than a year ago when he hurt his left one in the spring. He was on crutches back then, while this time he was projected to be out only seven to 10 days. That was on March 2 and he still hasn’t played in a Cactus League game going into last night.

Castro so wanted to be locked in as March came to a close. He looked sharp in early drills and went 2-for-2 in the opening game of spring, when most hitters are way behind the pitchers. Not Castro. He’s a creature of habit when it comes to the game. He wants to play every day, as he mostly did when he became a two-time All-Star.

But that was several years ago and now doubts about his ability have crept in among baseball observers. Maybe he has a few doubts of his own. It’s hard to imagine Castro having a good start to this season. Conventional wisdom says he’ll need April to be his spring training. But as good an athlete as he is, he might surprise people. And even if he gets locked in when May rolls around, that could still equate to five months of good Castro. But he has to prove it before people will believe in him again.

The good news is the Cubs are telling him to get back to being his old self. And manager Rick Renteria is reinforcing what he says to him in English by repeating it in Spanish, just to be sure. Without the injury it would be easier to predict a huge year from Castro. Now? Who knows for sure.

As for Rizzo, he was maligned for his 2013 season more than he should have been. But after hitting just .191 with runners in scoring position -- the same year he signed a $44 million deal -- criticism is bound to find you. There are a lot of things to like about Rizzo’s game, including his defense, as he became a Gold Glove finalist after a slow start. And consider his power, which produced 23 home runs in his first full year in the big leagues. But the Cubs and their fan base want more.

Rizzo is from Florida but has a relaxed, California-like attitude about him. “See the ball, hit the ball,” is his most common analysis of batting. And, no, he’s not a stats guy. But he thinks he’s a better hitter than his .233 batting average of a year ago. If this spring is any indication, he just might be.

Going into Tuesday night’s contest against the San Diego Padres, he was hitting .366, including a smooth 6-for-13 against lefties this spring. He’s driving the ball to the opposite field and could make teams rethink the shift they employ. But none of that matters until he starts to do it next week -- and in clutch situations. Last year wasn’t bad, but there’s plenty to improve on.

The talent is there for Castro and Rizzo. Now the steps have to be taken or the rebuild simply stalls. And the unthinkable could happen. The Cubs might have to go in another direction -- especially at shortstop -- where hot-shot prospect Javier Baez waits in the wings.

First things first: Castro and Rizzo get 2014 to prove themselves all over again.