When Starlin Castro first came up, he was essentially asked to be a savior. Just go up and hit -- and ignore the flaws. For a team that was struggling, that was okay. He was a fun player to watch at the plate. It was, at the very least, a nice distraction.
When they first arrived, it seemed even this front office wasn't quite sure what to do with him. They tried to get him to take more walks. Then they tried to get him to turn on more pitches and hit for power. Both approaches have met with mixed success.
Perhaps what this front office -- and everyone else -- underestimated is just how much Castro wants to win ball games. It is something Jon Lester noticed almost right away.
"The plan (for Anthony Rizzo) going up at each at-bat is there," Jon Lester said. "Him and [Starlin] Castro have had to grow up so fast. ... You can see the fire in their eyes. They want to win."
Lester would know about such things. The intensity he showed on the mound yesterday was palpable. Another player who puts his team first, Miguel Montero, doesn't want to see Castro go anywhere.
I've always said Castro was an instinctual hitter and sometimes trying to change what comes naturally is difficult -- and that goes for anybody. What the Cubs (or maybe specifically Joe Maddon) have asked Castro to do now is to use that natural talent and instinct for hitting and re-purpose it. They're just asking him to help get runs home.
It was something the Cubs learned against the Cardinals. While walks and slugging demonstrably leads to more runs scored -- and make no mistake, that is undoubtedly how the Cubs are building their offense, there will be times when runs can be tough to come by, times when they just have to just get the bat on the ball. Put the ball in play and sometimes you make luck happen -- to me, that is the lesson to be learned from those recent losses against the Cardinals. We've read that Maddon had similar thoughts, saying he wants to see hitters going to a two-strike approach in various situations. He has talked about the team needing fewer bad strikeouts -- and he doesn't mean bad in terms of quantity, but rather in terms of when they happen (those with men at 3B and less than two outs, for example).
Looking back to yesterday's game, the Cubs approach versus Gerrit Cole was to not let him get ahead so that he can go with one of his primary knockout pitches -- his hard slider low and away. Instead, the plan was to pounce on those early strikes. And when the Cubs got a runner to 3B in the first with less than two out, Castro did just that, jumping on a fastball up and over the plate -- a perfect pitch to elevate -- and took it deep into LF-CF for a sac fly. That was absolutely textbook, but it was a little thing that got lost in a game filled with great pitching and great defense.
Castro would later drive in a second run, again with a runner on 3rd and less than two outs. He did it again by simply by making contact and forcing the Pirates to make a difficult play, which they did not. That was one more big run on the board in a game that figured to be a low scoring affair with two aces going head to head. And considering the situation, it was important to get those runs home instead of having to rely on a struggling hitter (Chris Coghlan) to get a big two out hit.
Apart from what he has done at the plate, Castro is well-liked in the clubhouse and represents some continuity on this young roster, a consideration which should not be taken lightly. He's becoming something of a glue guy for them. Per Maddon, he is beginning to become a leader in the infield.
And that in itself is important for a Cubs infield that is just starting to come around. It is still a work in progress with a new 3B in Kris Bryant and 2B Addison Russell learning a new position. We saw some growing pains yesterday as Russell twice cut off Castro in the field when Castro was the only player with a chance to make a play. It is a nuance that Russell will have to learn. Sometimes just because you can get to a baseball (or make a throw), it doesn't always mean you should. But that is all part of the learning process for any young infielder -- one that Castro himself has already had to experience over the years.
The Cubs may eventually decide to move a SS and it may well be Castro when all is said and done, but I sincerely hope they think it through. Young middle infields tend to be mistake prone. They need time to mature and work together. Removing Castro from the equation is essentially asking the Cubs to start over and go through new growing pains again in 2016 -- a year where there is no question they will expect to contend for more than just a wildcard berth or even a division title. Can they afford to have two players learn on the job to start next season knowing how important it is to get off to a strong start?
There are a lot of nuances here. Javier Baez has re-entered the conversation with his improved play of late. Yes, we know that Maddon likes Javier Baez's instincts. That is the reason du jour to justify a trade of Castro, but Maddon also undoubtedly likes Castro's ability to make contact when the situation calls for it. The fact that he has moved him to the 4th spot of late indicates a lot of trust in that respect. I am sure he appreciates the continuity and growing leadership from Castro as well.
It make take some time to get used to, but this isn't the same Castro. This year's version has put team wins above his own numbers -- and that has value on a team that is going to get plenty of numbers elsewhere -- from Rizzo to Bryant to Soler and eventually, to Russell and Schwarber. Maybe even Baez and McKinney too if the Cubs can make it all fit.
But let's not forget that Castro can and probably will put up some pretty good numbers in his own right. It's just that this year the offensive burden isn't squarely only his shoulders anymore. And while it may not be showing up on the stat sheet, Castro has quietly done the little things to help the Cubs win. Most scouts, including our resident scout Kevin Gallo, will tell you that a team of all-stars is unrealistic. You need role players too.
It is ironic in a sense that the Cubs 3 time all-star shortstop, the one player who once was considered the future star on an aging team, may end up being that guy who plays that less glamorous role, especially as he gets surrounded by more and more talent. It is ironic that the player most often branded by outsiders as being selfish has perhaps sacrificed the most in terms of his individual numbers this season to fill a role the team needs.
The Cubs will do what they need to do in the next 10 months to make this a better, more complete team. There are too many variables to speculate, much less pinpoint a precise preference on how to accomplish that. It will depend in part on what is available and how much value they can get in return. But as we saw this past offseason, the Cubs attack their needs from a global perspective. They don't add piecemeal. They identify what they want their roster to look like as a whole, how they want it to function as a unit. For that you need players who fit within an overarching organizational culture and are able to fill much needed roles. We've seen that with the Fowler, Montero, Lester, and Ross acquisitions, but perhaps nobody expected they may be able to fill in one of those roles from within -- much less from a guy who has been routinely criticized for not doing the little things to help the team win.
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