The idea that Starlin Castro would elevate his performance as the Cubs ramped up their rebuild – and played games that actually matter – hasn’t become a reality yet.
Joe Maddon doesn’t blast his players in public, putting a positive spin on things and making the media happy with an amusing anecdote, a clever one-liner or the perfect sound bite for TV and Twitter: “Rock and roll.”
Castro has played for five managers in six seasons, becoming a focal point for Cubs fans/bloggers, the Chicago talk-show circuit and the Twittersphere. Maybe the perception would be different if Castro had Maddon deflecting attention – and a better team around him – during those five fifth-place finishes.
But if the Cubs are really going to contend this year, then Castro’s defense has to be a concern.
You could hear some boos during the ninth inning of Wednesday night’s 3-0 loss to the Washington Nationals at Wrigley Field. Castro had just committed his second error on a groundball to shortstop, giving him 11 this season. The announced crowd of 34,215 had thinned out considerably by then, but enough frustrated fans had seen enough to make some noise.
“He’s done a lot of good things,” Maddon said afterward, defending Castro. “I would say the problem mostly with him has been the routine play more than anything else. And I really believe that you can get a major-league caliber infielder to make the routine play. And he’s been doing that for awhile. He’s had a couple of mistakes – I don’t disagree. But for the most part, I’ve been fine with him at shortstop.”
Maddon wondered if Castro had carried his last at-bat out onto the field, still stewing over grounding out with runners on second and third to end the eighth inning. Maddon also pointed out Castro had bailed out Addison Russell, turning a nice double play after a bad flip from the second baseman.
Yes, it’s a long season, with the Cubs having almost 72 percent of their schedule remaining. No doubt, Castro should have built up more capital as someone who earned three All-Star selections before his 25th birthday and already has almost 900 career hits.
But Washington shortstop Ian Desmond (13) is the only National League player who has committed more errors than Castro so far this season, and it makes you wonder how long the Cubs will wait before they make a defensive shakeup with Russell or Javier Baez.
The Cubs certainly didn’t lose this game because of Castro, who got two singles off Max Scherzer (6-3, 1.51 ERA) on a night where the $210 million ace looked like a Cy Young Award frontrunner. And it was Russell’s throwing error that helped create an unearned run in the fourth inning.
But Castro hasn’t taken that leap forward as an offensive force yet. He hasn’t homered in almost three weeks. He’s generated one extra-base hit in his last 14 games, his OPS sinking to .637. A batting average that had risen to .333 on May 1 has since dropped to .270.
Castro’s line-drive percentage (16.0) would represent a career low, while his groundball percentage (60.7) is soaring toward a career high, according to the online database at FanGraphs.
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On the 25-and-under infield, Castro is playing next to two rookies in Russell and third baseman Kris Bryant. If the Cubs want to play deep into October, they need to know what they will get from their shortstop, because this team isn’t all that sharp defensively, and the mistakes will now be magnified even more.
“We work on it constantly, man,” Maddon said. “If you’ve noticed, it’s a lot of routine stuff. We’ve also made a lot of great plays the last couple days. We have made a lot of really good plays on defense, and then the one that seems to bite us is the more routine stuff. That’s just repetition and technique.
“Just being fundamentally sound, that’s all that is, and we’re working on it always. I will never denigrate the work of this group or the coaching staff. They’re outstanding. It’s just a little bit of a youthful thing. We just got to get better.”