The Unheralded (Maybe) Greatness of Starlin Castro

Ever since the Cubs exacerbated their crush of highly-rated infield prospects by adding Addison Russell at last July’s trade deadline, it’s been assumed that incumbent shortstop Starlin Castro’s days in Chicago are numbered. Indeed, he makes an attractive trade candidate for a team that is still starved for pitching – he’s just 24 years old, and he’s signed through 2019 with another team option year at rates that are well in line with his production, if not even discounted. Addison Russell, for his part, figures to graduate easily into being an effective shortstop at the Major League level. He spent the majority of 2014, his age 20 season, at Double-A, hitting .302/.355/.529 with 13 HR in 63 games, all while flashing solid defense at the position. That’s an extremely advanced prospect, very young for his level and having lots of success – there’s a lot to be optimistic about.

When Starlin Castro was 20 years old, he was a big league regular. He hit .300, again, in the majors. The next year, at 21, he hit .307 and led the league with 207 hits, 55 of those for extra bases. It’s hard to remember another shortstop of this generation breaking in so young and with such immediate success. Even Jose Reyes didn’t have his breakout year until he was 23. For a couple of years there, Castro was a genuine phenom, but somehow that idea of Castro has faded from memory. Take a look at his Baseball-Reference page again, I was surprised when I did – if you squint, the first five years of his career look a lot like that of a potential Hall of Fame shortstop. At the very least, there’s nothing in his playing record that would rule it out. He’s 24, and he already has 846 career hits – taking the over on 2,000 in his career seems like a reasonable bet to me. Yes, 2013 was an absolute disaster of a season, but he rebounded very strongly last season with a .292 average and a career-high 114 OPS+. At this point, 2013 is looking like such an outlier that I wouldn’t be inclined to worry about it going forward.

There’s no one off the top of my head that strikes me as an excellent comp for him, I think there’s a little bit of Edgar Renteria in him. Except Renteria was a bit speedier and a little stronger with the glove, but Castro’s the better hitter. The precocious Renteria broke into the majors at 19, but he didn’t have an above-average season by OPS+ until he was 25, and only four of them in his career despite his lifetime .286 average. He finished with 2,327 hits and 32 bWAR and at this point, it’s not hard to say that Castro compares favorably to him.

Still, the Starlin Castro experience has evolved into an often frustrating one for Cubs fans, and he’s eased nobody’s worries by finding himself at the scene of two separate nightclub shootings in the Dominican this off-season, let’s call it bad judgment and bad friends for now. In my book, you get at least three nightclub shootings before I write you off, after all, who among us hasn’t been there? It could very well be the case that Castro’s greatest value to the Cubs is what he could net them in a trade, and it could very well be the case that Addison Russell is the starting shortstop on the next Cubs playoff team. I love Russell as a prospect, but even prospects as good as he can sometimes miss. If the perception has emerged that Castro is an afterthought to the Cubs’ plans, that’s a mistake – they should be cautious about taking for granted the player they already have, one whose track record of performance at a young age is more noteworthy than he tends to get credit for.

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