A true shortstop is a rare commodity in baseball. We saw the Diamondbacks give up a premium arm in Trevor Bauer to acquire a good defensive SS in Didi Gregorious. We've seen Texas and Atlanta refuse to give up a young SS (Jurickson Profar and Andrelton Simmons, respectively) for a big bat in Justin Upton.
The Cubs are fortunate to have as many as 5 potential MLB shortstops in their organization, starting with their two time all-star, Starlin Castro.
Offensive outlook (Bill James projections)
- Starlin Castro: .304/.346/.448 with 12 HRs, 24 SBs, and .341 wOBA
James predicts that Castro will have his best offensive season yet and I'm not sure he's not selling him short. As we've mentioned before, projections can only go based on past trends. They do not account for a change in approach, a gain in physical strength, or any other kind of unmeasured improvement. Castro began to change his approach last year and struggled with it at times, but still put up a league average offensive year -- which is more than adequate considering the position he plays. He also appears to be maturing physically and the added strength allowed him to reach a career high of 14 HRs. His doubles were down slightly, but Castro really started to drive the ball into the gaps as the season wore on. Now that he has had some reps with his this new approach, it's not outlandish to expect an improvement beyond what the statistical trends project for him if he can sustain and build on those individual improvements.
The change in approach wasn't just limited to his time at the plate. Castro made great strides as he improved his footwork on ground balls and became more aggressive on softly hit grounders. There was an adjustment period in the first month or so and then some fatigue toward the end of the year that caused some sloppy errors. Castro had 7 errors by April 21st (just 15 games) and then made 5 more from Sept. 11th (and 8 after Aug. 27th) until the end of the year. In between he made just 15 errors in 126 games. Over 162 games that translates to 19 errors in a season, more than acceptable.
I only mention the errors because they are highly visual and a source of frustration for many fans, especially since well over half of them occurred at the beginning and end of the season. We tend to remember beginnings and endings more than we do middles, so the lasting impression of Castro is as a talented but error-prone SS. The numbers say that is only partially true over the full season. Moreover, we know errors are an archaic way of measuring defensive performance. Overall this past season, Castro improved his range and even if we take into account the 27 total errors, he put up a UZR/150 of -0.9, which is roughly an average defensive SS. Of course, if we take out those first and last couple weeks out of the season, Castro played well above average defensively in that time frame. Considering the offense he brings to the position, that's a huge asset for this team.
We can expect Castro's defense to continue to improve as he now has a full year of experience with his new and improved defensive approach. Hopefully, the Cubs can give him a few more days off to keep him from wearing down at the end of the year.
We forget that Starlin Castro is still just 22 years old. That's younger than almost every rookie you'll see next season, yet Castro is entering his 4th season. We saw some increased maturity, both from a physical and mental standpoint, though he still has some ways to go in both categories. We tend to nitpick at everything Castro does wrong and forget about just how good a ballplayer he is right now-- and he is still 4-5 years away from his peak seasons. Castro has a chance to get a whole lot better and considering how good he is now, that's an encouraging sign for the Cubs at a position which is among the toughest to fill in baseball. The fact that Castro signed a team friendly extension makes him even more valuable to a rebuilding team. He was the first player Theo Epstein identified as a core player and the recent extension only confirms that status.
The Cubs have virtually no depth at the MLB level at SS, which explains why Castro played 162 games last year. That hasn't changed much as the Cubs have only added Edwin Maysonet and Alberto Gonzalez as non-roster players. Considering what a vital part Castro is to the team, it's hard to imagine either getting a lot of playing time. Darwin Barney started the only game that Castro didn't last year and the benching/rest didn't even last the entire game. Perhaps Luis Valbuena, who played some SS at Iowa last year, can fill in on occasion now that the Ian Stewart signing may relegate him to a utility role.
Given the lack of talent at the SS position left in this FA class and the cost to acquire a true SS through trade, even a backup, it seems the Cubs are going to roll with what they have right now.
Most MLB Ready Prospect: The Cubs top SS prospects all played at A ball or lower so we'll say it's 21 year old Arismendy Alcantara....for now. He should start the year in AA with Javier Baez at high A Daytona. Alcantara has true SS skills with good range and a strong arm. At the plate he's an aggressive player who makes consistent hard contact with some gap power (.302/.339/.447) He is also a threat once he is on the base paths (24 SBs in 28 attempts). Logan Watkins and Junior Lake are ahead of both players but neither are considered "true" shortstops and, barring an emergency, neither is expected to get playing time there on a full-time basis.
Best MLB prospect: Javier Baez could also pass Alcantara up as the most ready by the end of this season. Right now he is an exciting, but very raw baseball player who was exposed somewhat in the fall league by more experienced pitchers. Offensively Baez is a potential monster with a 70 rating on the scouting scale for both his hit tool and power. That translates to a potential .300 hitter with 30 or more HRs. Despite the rawness to his game, Baez possesses surprising natural instincts both on the bases and in the field. Defensively, he doesn't possess the same kind of range and fluid actions as some of the other Cubs young shortstops, but he makes up for some of that with those instincts/intangibles, and surprisingly soft hands.
Others to watch: Of the players not mentioned so far, Marco Hernandez is the most intriguing. He's a natural, instinctive, athletic SS who flows through the ball and possesses an above average arm. He shows good contact skills and the ball carries well off his bat. I expect him to have as much as 10-12 HR power as matures. Though not a burner, he has good speed and should be able to steal some bases at the MLB level. In short, he's a good all-around SS with defense potentially being his biggest asset long term. Carlos Penalver is another good athlete with strong defensive SS skills. The question for him will be how much offense he can provide. He shows a good eye at the plate and makes contact, but hasn't shown much in terms of even gap power yet. With Penalver, it's about getting physically stronger without losing range and quickness at SS, where he would have the most value given his skill set. Tim Saunders burst on the Cubs scene hitting .381/.431/.536 across three levels. He spend most of his time in Peoria, though he also held his own in Daytona, hitting .310 with a .362 OBP there. Despite the surprisingly good numbers, Saunders is more of a grinder than a toolsy prospect and more of a utility guy than a true shortstop. Still, guys like Saunders seem to find their way to the big leagues, so he certainly bears watching if he continues to hit. Frandy De La Rosa was signed as a SS but his arm and range may be a bit short for the position. The Cubs are most impressed with his bat, which should play well at 2B and possibly even 3B or LF if he develops as hoped.
Bonus Feature: Tools summary
Writing this piece was a lot of fun, not just because of the top shelf talent the team has in Starlin Castro and Javier Baez, but also because of the types of all-around toolsy players the Cubs have at the position. It made me start thinking about who rates the best in each individual category. It turns out it spreads out quite nicely if you were to rate the top Cubs shortstops strictly on the five/six different tools, so I decided to add an extra feature just for this position based on who I think is best long term in each area.
- Hit: Starlin Castro
- Power: Javier Baez
- Speed: Arismendy Alcantara
- Defense: Marco Hernandez
- Arm: Junior Lake (Baez for full-time SS)
Not much on that "6th" tool, plate discipline, unfortunately. Logan Watkins is a 2B but could see time at SS, and he'd be the hands-down winner if he were a full-time guy there. Tim Saunders also showed decent plate discipline. But if we were to go with just true shortstops, I'd go with Carlos Penalver, though he's only done it so far at the lowest levels of the system.