The Cubs can’t come out and say: We have no idea what we’ll get out of Starlin Castro from one year to the next.
That reality obviously makes Castro a difficult player to build around (or trade this offseason). But the Cubs genuinely admired the way a three-time All-Star shortstop handled losing his job and respected how he made adjustments in the batter’s box and reinvented himself as a second baseman.
Nine years ago this week, the Cubs signed a teenager out of the Dominican Republic who would put up almost 1,000 hits before his 26th birthday. Castro learned English quickly and kept working on the language, which helped him rocket through the farm system, never spending a full season on the Double-A level and playing zero Triple-A games.
After being the lightning rod for five straight fifth-place teams, Castro caught the final out of a wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates and helped the Cubs eliminate the St. Louis Cardinals in the first playoff series ever against their hated rivals.
Theo Epstein says he would be fine with keeping this group of position players intact, but the president of baseball operations also knows the Cubs might have to trade hitters for a frontline pitcher.
Castro is guaranteed $37 million across the next four years — which complicates any potential deal — but that doesn’t look like a sunk cost after his second-half surge.
With all this uncertainty surrounding Castro’s future, did he show something to the front office?
“For sure,” Castro said. “I really can play second base, too. I like it (there). Whatever happens, happens. Like I said, I don’t handle that decision. Whatever they do, do it.”
The Cubs shopped Castro but couldn’t drum up much interest by the July 31 trade deadline, when he had been batting .237 with a .575 OPS that made him one of the least productive hitters in the majors.
One week later, the Cubs would bench Castro and install Addison Russell as their everyday shortstop.
“I really honestly didn’t know how he would react to the whole thing,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’d be lying if I said I did. But I can tell you this: When we sat him down, I was very direct and honest with him. There was nothing gray about it. He was not going to play shortstop, except for maybe game-in-progress.
“In that meeting, he looked at me straight up and he did not whimper, cry, complain, make any excuse or say I was wrong. He never said any of that. He just nodded his head and went to work.”
A player criticized for his lack of concentration focused on learning how to play second base, where his natural sidearm motion translated. Castro made mechanical adjustments and evolved as a hitter, moving closer to home plate, closing his stance and directing all that momentum back toward the pitcher instead of leaning over to hit groundball after groundball.
Maddon played Castro in favorable matchups and watched him hit .296 in August. Castro exploded in September, putting up a 1.202 OPS and becoming a key piece to a 97-win team, the fans at Wrigley Field clapping along to his catchy walk-up music: Omega’s “Ando En La Versace.”
“I think you see — by how he dealt with so much adversity this season — how much he loves being part of this organization,” Epstein said. “And how much he embraced the move to second base and how hard he worked to bounce back from this low point in his career to become such an important contributor down the stretch.
“So of all the players that we need to be proud of this year — and there are many — he might be the one most deserving of that pride because of everything that he went through (and) how easy it would have been for him to quit or to put his own interests in front of the interests of the team.
“He really rose above that on a personal level — and on a professional level — and set a wonderful tone that I know his teammates and his front office really appreciated. So kudos to him for, in total, a great year, while not his best year statistically.
“He finished incredibly strong. We expect great things from him for years to come.”
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Temperamentally, Castro seems more suited to being a supporting actor rather than a leading man (though that description probably fits for most players). Castro and All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo clearly benefited from not being the focus every day and getting help up and down the lineup.
“It’s hard,” Castro said. “It’s not every day you’re going to have a good game, you know what I mean? Especially with the team that we got right now, if you don’t hit it well that day, you got like eight guys that can do that job for you. I think it’s pretty awesome.”
Castro finished with a .265 average, 11 homers, 69 RBIs, a .671 OPS — and maybe a new image. What’s unclear is whether that means he stays or goes.
“The assumption is that he’d been here for such a long period of time that there was nothing left to learn, and that’s like so crazy to think that way,” Maddon said. “He’s not done getting better. He’s going to keep getting better because now he gets it. He absolutely gets it. He understands what it takes to be on a winning ballclub.”