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Cubs Mon Jun 04 2012

The Future of Starlin Castro

Cubs_200.pngAfter erroneous conclusions were drawn from sources who were probably a couple of Wrigley Field janitors, rumors started flying late last week about any Cubs' player not named Jeff Samardzija being available via trade. Specifically, that Starlin Castro could be had for two impact prospects.

The article and discussion about Castro specifically became serious enough that Theo Epstein begrudgingly commented on the story (since he'd rather be focusing on draft preparation), saying that "Starlin Castro is the type of player we're looking to build around. There has been no trade consideration with him, whatsoever."

It was enough to call off the dogs for now, but lest we forget that just a few days before, Epstein said there was no such thing as an untouchable player if an otherworldly deal was presented to him. The moral of the story: Every man has his price.

But is Starlin Castro a cornerstone player to build around as Epstein claims? That's a question worth diving into.

The first thing to play out has to be where Castro plays defensively. He has good instincts playing shortstop, and is one of the best middle infielders in baseball in chasing down shallow fly balls. His range on grounders is above league average, and he has an arm that matches the same description. What he lacks is accuracy with his arm along with a sense of timing and mental consistency.

Many people have brought up the thought of moving Castro off short for second or third base because that's where he'd end up in the future due to his propensity to lollygag and throw the ball around. The Cubs stuck with him because he was just 22 years old and a shortstop with his talents is much more valuable than a second or third baseman due to the difficulty of playing the position.

Despite a slew of early season errors, Castro has really settled in. He currently ranks as the 5th best shortstop in UZR/150 (a defensive metric developed by FanGraphs to rate players overall defensive ability -- but is admittedly a weak statistic in small sample sizes), which is leaps and bounds higher than where he's ranked in the previous two seasons.

Even if he eventually moves to second base, he would rank as one of the best at that position, but the Cubs should do everything they can to continue is development at shortstop to keep his value at its absolute height.

As a hitter, far less is known about how he'll evolve. The organization admitted before the season that Castro wasn't a number three hitter, but they put him out there (and rightfully so) because he was the best hitter on the (really bad) team. Since that point, Bryan LaHair has proven he should probably be the three hitter (though he hasn't been given the opportunity), and Castro has been moved up to the two spot in an attempt to spark the offense.

I understand the team is trying to win games, but it shouldn't be done at the expense of a player Epstein says the team plans to build around. Do the Cubs hope one day he becomes a middle-of-the-order bat, or does he belong as a table-setter at the top?

The good news about Castro offensively is that he makes a ton of contact and consistently hits the ball hard. Unfortunately, he lacks the two components teams crave in an elite hitter: power and plate discipline.

Castro has drawn just six walks on the season (and only 35 in 715 plate appearances last season), and ranks among the bottom in the majors in pitches per plate appearance. Though players like Robinson Cano and Josh Hamilton don't take many pitches either, they are the only two players in the bottom-30 of that statistic who rank among world-class players.

The ability to draw walks and not make outs is the most fundamental skill of a successful offense (note the top seven teams in on base percentage are no farther than three games back in their divisional races), it's just not a part of Castro's DNA at this point in his career. It's also not surprising when talking about a player coming from the Dominican Republic, where you get noticed by making loud noises from connecting on a pitch with a wooden bat. As the saying goes, you can't walk off the island.

With a major overhaul in plate discipline unlikely, the remaining hope is Castro develops home run power over the next couple of seasons by getting more loft on the pitches he squares up. This scenario is far more likely as he gets bigger and gains more experience - but the bigger he gets, the less range he has a shortstop. In my opinion, you don't trade defensive ability for homers at a key position. Power can be found elsewhere.

That being said, the organization is making the right move sliding Castro to the two spot in the order. I see him sticking there far beyond this season, and eventually hitting in the vicinity of 15-20 homers while continuing to hit above .300 and getting on base around the .345 mark. If he keeps stealing 20 bases a year without getting caught too often along with the type of defense we've seen the past month (or better), he profiles as a player you can build a franchise around.

And fans should be thankful for that -- because he's the only player on the roster who qualifies.

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