In the picture Cubs fans dream about—you know, that one where the rebuilding effort has flourished and Wrigley Field is rocking with excitement on a nightly basis as Chicago prepares for a pennant chase—Starlin Castro is the short stop. But that image becomes blurred, and seems further and further from reality, when he continues to play a predominant role in disastrous innings like this.
The score was tied at one between the Cubs and Brewers, who were playing the middle match of their three game series at Miller Park in Milwaukee Saturday night.
Logan Schafer lofted a shallow fly ball to left field to lead off the bottom of the fifth inning. Alfonso Soriano took a step backward, then raced forward and lunged to catch the sinking baseball. It skipped off his glove and bounced passed him, sending Schafer to second base. The play was ruled an error.
Following a walk to Martin Maldonado and a Yuniesky Betancourt ground ball to the right side, the Brewers had runners at second and third with one out.
Pinch hitter Blake Lalli then sent a routine ground ball to Anthony Rizzo at first base. It banged off his glove and rolled to the foul side of the bag. Rizzo recovered to retire Lalli, but Schafer scored to give the Brewers the lead.
Four pitches later, Norichika Aoki hit another routine groundball to two-time all-star short stop Starlin Castro. He fielded the grounder, but couldn’t transfer the ball to his throwing hand and dropped it. Maldonado scored, and the Brewers had a 3-1 lead. They would go on to win 5-1.
The Cubs made two of their six errors in the series in that fifth inning Saturday, and had Rizzo not retired Lalli, it would have been three of their seven in the series.
It goes without saying that this rebuilding Cubs team is not good enough to recover from bad defense and fundamental breakdowns. Clearly, it has been a team wide epidemic since the 2013 season began.
With 17 errors in 17 games, the Cubs have committed the second most defensive miscues in major league baseball. Only the Washington Nationals have made more. Fourteen of the 74 runs allowed by Cubs pitchers this season have been unearned. And that doesn’t include the mental mistakes that don’t show up in box scores that are just as costly as physical errors.
Soriano, despite a much improved 2012 season in left field, has never been confused with a high quality left fielder. While his miscue is costly, everyone knows why Soriano is in left field. He’s not part of the core this team is building. I can live with his mistakes.
Rizzo, firmly entrenched in the core, has been shaky at first base in 2013. But based on his performance in 2012, his reputation, and his lack of experience, [153 career major league games], credit his recent defensive misfortunes to the pains of rebuilding.
But Castro, despite two appearances in the mid-summer classic and more than 500 hits to his name at just 23 years of age, has already played in 462 major league games following Sunday’s contest in Milwaukee. While errors are part of the game, it shouldn’t be the case that the team’s young star is still failing to make routine plays on a semi-regular basis in the 461st game of his career.
Of those aforementioned 17 errors the Cubs have committed this season, Castro—the shortstop from whom we’re all still waiting to see marked defensive improvement—has made four of them.
At what point is Castro no longer young enough to be excused for the physical and mental errors he too often commits?
“He’s got a lot more baseball age than Anthony [Rizzo] does,” said Comcast SportsNet Cubs analyst Todd Hollandsworth this week on “Cubs Weekly” on WGN Radio. “He’s got a lot more experience. He’s near 500 ball games. That’s a pretty substantial number. These mistakes have got to stop.”
In his first three major league seasons, Castro has committed more than 27 errors per season on average. I know, some defensive metrics suggest his range provides him more fielding opportunities, and as a result he’ll commit more errors. But anyone that has watched him play since his promotion from Double-A in May of 2010 knows that mental and physical mistakes in the field have plagued him throughout his career.
Since Castro’s arrival three years ago, the prevailing theory was that as the short stop continued to gain experience on the major league level, his defensive prowess might eventually reach, or come close to his offensive ability. Judging by the early returns of 2013 and the past three full seasons, that hasn’t been the case.
I asked a national league scout earlier this week how many major league games it generally takes for a player to realize his defensive potential.
“A good fielder? Zero,” he said. “Hitting takes some time. Pitching takes some time. Defense should be learned and earned before you get to the big leagues.”
But what about a guy like Castro, who was obviously promoted, and remains a prominent major league player, because of his offensive talent?
“If he’s bad, he’s bad. With defense, there is no rookie threshold, especially at the shortstop position. Not everyone is a great defender.”
Over the past couple seasons, baseball sources I’ve spoken to suggest that Castro still has the physical tools to become the defensive shortstop he himself, the organization, and Cubs fans, hope he can become. No matter the source, there has been one common attribute in which all agreed Castro must improve.
“The simple answer for me is focus,” Hollandsworth said. These are plays that should really be made.”
“The physical errors I understand,” he added. “But you watch how some of it breaks down. Too quick, too fast, not taking one’s time, accelerating the game. When things start to go south on you, what you want to do is slow things down.”
Castro admitted following the Cubs April 11th loss to San Francisco—one in which he made a costly error that lead to a four-run fourth inning for the Giants—that he must be more relaxed, and he must resist the urge to be too quick with the baseball to avoid mistakes.
But as he approaches 500 games in the major leagues, if he hasn’t figured out how to properly focus and relax while in the field, will he ever, no matter how hard he works at it?
Maybe the bigger question is this: as the Cubs continue to put pieces together for their eventual turnaround, the team that competes for the division title if not the World Series on an annual basis, can it win if Castro is a “bad” defender?
They had better figure that out, and soon. Or perhaps it’s time for a position change, or a trade.