On Monday, Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro turns 24 years old just days before their season opener in Pittsburg. This is generally the age that rookies are just beginning to break into the league, but 2014 will be Castro’s fourth full season with the Cubs. He enters the season as the leader of a young Cubs team, something that he has been considered by teammates and fans for at least the past two seasons. But with some believing that Castro took a step-back in his development last season, and the recent emergence of infielder Javier Baez, a question the Cubs need to ask is whether or not Castro will be part of their future plans moving forward.
Castro is a two time All-Star that has tremendous upside with his offense. In his first two full seasons with the Cubs, he hit for an average of .332 with 195 hits and 85 runs in about 660 at-bats. He made a name for himself batting anywhere from one to four in the Cubs lineup and has shown great ability to hit the ball all over the field. Castro has also been durable for the Cubs by only missing five games in his first three seasons.
Then came 2013 where Castro had his worst year by far. He saw career lows in his batting average, hits, and RBI while having a career-high in strikeouts with 129. Last season was overall a bad year for the Cubs with them finishing last in the National League Central and barely putting together 66 wins. With superstition and baseball going hand-in-hand, I’m more convinced that his 666 at-bats last year was an overall bad omen for the season he had.
Now I’m not ready to jump the gun and say that Castro will continue to slip in production as he has the past two seasons. There is obviously still an adjustment to the big leagues for any young player and one can even make the case that the instability surrounding the Cubs roster during Castro’s time in the majors could just as well hinder his development.
The biggest problem that I see with Castro is he sometimes seems disinterested in the game or what is happening on the field. One of the biggest critiques that people have about Castro is his average to below-average defensive abilities. Over his first three seasons Castro has averaged 26 errors and he has been criticized for holding the ball too long after fielding, causing him to rush throws or simply make poor decisions. Last year he actually committed the fewest errors in a season for his career with 22 while playing the most innings on the field with over 1,400.
The real issue that you see with Castro is that he has a tendency to take plays off. Many Cubs fans will remember a game against St. Louis where he completely turned his back to the batter. He seemed to causally stroll around the infield, chewing on sunflower seeds, and kicking up dirt. In another incident where Castro turned his back to the batter, he appeared to be interested in a flock of seagulls that landed in left field and even made a “finger gun” motion, leaving the impression that the young shortstop was metaphorically hunting birds in the middle of the inning. After the game, then Cubs manager Dale Sveum said “If he wasn’t such a good player I’d bench him. This was absolutely the wrong message to send baseball fans and an even worse example being set for the rest of the team.
He also has a tendency to not understand the situation on the field, which is illustrated best in another game against the Cardinals.
The point I’m trying to make is that where Castro might help his team with clutch hitting, he hurts them when he has a poor attitude on the field. When Castro is not paying attention, he makes the rest of his team look laughable and further exemplifies the youth in the organization.
The best decision Cubs management made in the past few years is bringing in Rick Renteria as their manager for 2014. Renteria brings a new attitude to a developing ball club and his bi-lingual background might be exactly what Castro needs to tighten up his game. Communication between Renteria and Castro is going to be critical if both men hope to find success in Chicago. Renteria has experience developing young players, most recently when he coached Team Mexico in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
“When you look at qualities to lead, I think that first and foremost there is a connection to the player,” said Bud Black, manager of the San Diego Padres where Renteria spent six seasons. “He’s a communicator. He’ll address things. He’s not one to let things linger. I also think he can motivate. He’s high character, and he’s consistent.”
Now that Theo Epstein and Cubs management believe they have the right coach in place, it is up to Castro to put it all together and be the unquestionable face of the franchise. I have little doubt in his abilities on the field as he has shown that he has the talent to be an All-Star caliber shortstop. My concern is that Castro lets his past achievements hold him back from further developing into one of the leagues best shortstops. Only Castro can make the most out of his talent.
The Cubs and Castro look to start the 2014 season with a clean slate. He has been on the disabled list a majority of spring training, but he is not playing for a spot on the field because he has already earned that. With the emergence of Javier Baez, the Cubs top rated prospect and the fourth ranked in all the majors, Cubs management will have to evaluate if they plan on both of these players co-existing in the middle infield or if they might look to move Castro while he still draws interest from other teams. My bet is that he will have a significantly improved season this year and that the Cubs will continue to make baby steps in the right direction. He is currently taking batting practice in the minors, but should start the season with his team.
Castro is now the face of the franchise at 24 years old and now it is up to him whether he can be a premier shortstop in this league for the next 10 years. With all that being said, happy birthday Starlin.