Precocious talent doesn't come the Cubs' way too often. It seems that every breakout performance by a young player who tempts the gods by teasing at elite production is summarily followed by a trail of tears leading down tragic paths like "Shoulder Injury" and "Impatient Hacking".
Following in the prospect footsteps of guys like Mark Prior and Corey Patterson Starlin Castro cratered after an impressive 3 year start to his career. We know the songs and the verses from last year, .347 SLG, 70 wRC+, big jump in K% -0.1 fWAR, all tied in with mental lapses on defense to create a depressing 2013 for Castro.
Here is a heat map showing where Castro hit the ball last year (all graphics courtesy of mlbfarm.com)
That's not a pretty picture. By comparison let's look at Hanley Ramirez's heat map from 2013.
You'll notice a spray chart with more balls being hit into the outfield with authority for Hanley compared to the groundouts Castro generated. Perhaps Hanley isn't a fair comp. Let's compare Castro to Andrelton Simmons:
Again, we see a healthy spray of hits with good distribution that really makes Castro's heat map look anemic. There was a lot made of how the Cubs may have confused their young shortstop with a change in approach. Castro is a reactionary quick twitch hitter with pretty good plate coverage. The Cubs attempted to make him into a more patient player and it did not work out very well. I do believe that if Castro returns to his old approach he will regain some of the losses he sustained in 2013.
Hope is pretty hard to find among the shambles of this franchise. I don't like to peddle false hope around as I think doing so undercuts my purpose on this blog. I do feel an obligation to provide readers with an honest assessment of what's happening with the Cubs.
However, there is some optimism to be had from a few different sources regarding Starlin Castro. Let's start with Baseball Prospectus's projection for Castro.
- 651 PAs
- 51 XBH
- 4.76 BB%/15.05 K%
- 2.7 WARP
Here's what ZIPS has for Castro across the same stats:
- 683 PAs
- 52 XBH
- 4.8 BB%/16.0 K%
- 3.0 zWAR
And here's what Steamer has for Castro
- 604 PAs
- 46 XBH
- 4.3 BB%/18.3K%
- 2.6 fWAR
Average that out and you have a player who slashes .279/.319/.412 with 50 XBH a 4.62 BB% against a 16.45 K% all while playing shortstop. The thing to remember (especially with PECOTA) is that these are the most likely outcomes with wiggle room either way. Given that valuation, the projections present a decent package. It's not the superstar level production we were all predicting at the start of the 2013 season by any means. It is, however, a marked improvement over the valley that Castro sunk to over that stretch. All projections have him taking a major step forward from last year and improving in virtually every statistical category.
I don't think either projection is made with rose colored glasses either. Those are very realistic and perhaps conservative estimates for the level of production Castro can return to without too many voices pulling him in too many different directions. I've long thought that he had .320/.360/.470 potential. That estimation took a hit last year and he'll have to work to earn it back but I'm pleased that the projection models think he can return to form. There's also room to grow with a young 24 year old player. Age is still on Castro's side and early career struggles are a fact of baseball life for many players. A lot of people forget how players like Robin Yount and Alan Trammell struggled in their age 23 seasons. I'm not saying it's an absolute certainty that Castro will improve, but writing him off this early was always folly.
Javier Baez is looming in the minors and this will be a key year for Starlin and the Cubs organization. If he struggles again all year it's all but certain that Javier Baez will get a crack at becoming the Cubs' long term solution at short. Castro has a pretty tradeable contract that will still entice teams willing to bet on the upside. PECOTA, ZIPS, Steamer and myself believe in the polarizing shortstop, but ultimately it'll be up to him to produce.