I was not in a position to discuss it last night, given how polarizing the topic can be, and given that the Cubs had just dropped the game and the series against the Nationals. But, with a mediocre night’s sleep behind me, I’m brave enough to bring up Starlin Castro.
In many ways, last night’s game was the story of Castro and his relationship with the fans in a nutshell. Those who want to criticize the 25-year-old who has been a flashpoint for years on bad teams point to the two errors and the weakly pulled groundball on an outside pitch at a critical moment. Those who want to defend him point to the two solid hits and a quality defensive play that saved Addison Russell from his own second error.
And just about nobody is willing to wade into that tiny gray space that lives between those two poles. Castro was either terrible last night, and it was the final straw (in a box full of final straws, apparently), or Castro is working it out and the haters are just overreacting again.
I understand why it’s come to this, and most of it has nothing to do with Starlin Castro.
Take a starved fan base, and then tease them with a couple playoff appearances built on the backs of star-studded teams in 2007 and 2008. Then sweep them out of the playoffs. Then, plunge headlong into a period of awfulness – some intentional, some not – with some unlikeable teams lacking in star power or, well, talent. Then explode upon the fans a 20-year-old wunderkind who is already very good, and, by simplistic projection, can only get better.
Make him the focus of the team. Make him an All-Star. Make those fans suffer through ugly year after ugly year, but teach them to expect brighter horizons because, hey, we’ve got that guy. And often, the guy is really damn good.
Then maybe the guy doesn’t progress as much as you’d expect based solely on the age upon which he arrived in the big leagues. Maybe calling him an “All-Star” doesn’t actually do him any favors when it comes to the expectations game. Maybe he struggles on defense sometimes. Maybe he tries to adjust his approach at the plate to tap into some of his higher order potential, and maybe it doesn’t work completely.
Then, after all of that, rebuild the organization with a cadre of young talent, much of which theoretically could be playing the guy’s position. It’s easy to dream on young talent. So the fans do, and some of them start to unfairly malign the guy.
The fans should know better, since the guy once was the young talent. Maybe he still is.
* * *
Let’s be clear about one thing up front: Starlin Castro is having a terrible season thus far.
His .270/.298/.339 line (.280 wOBA, 73 wRC+) is hauntingly similar to his inarguably poor 2013 season (.245/.284/.347, .280 wOBA, 72 wRC+). His 11 errors are just 4 shy of his total last year. The advanced defensive metrics project him to have his worst season in the field since 2011 (by UZR/150) or ever (by DRS). Castro has a negative Win Probability Added for the season, meaning that he’s affirmatively helped the Cubs lose more often than he’s helped them win. He’s had a negative WPA in 24 of his 46 games this year. His WAR for the year is -0.2.
Worse, none of those ugly numbers are the product of flukey bounces or bad luck. The only apology you can offer at this point is that it’s still only May. Guys go through slumps. Guys look bad for stretches. Then they turn it around. That could happen with Castro, and he’s certainly done it before.
Right now, Castro is struggling mightily. An adjustment here or there, and Castro might be back to an above-average bat playing average or better defense at shortstop. Or the adjustment might not come until next year. Or never. That’s just baseball.
If you know me at all by now, I’m not one to take super strong positions on things. That’s borne mostly out of my personality, but also my background in the law, where you’re constantly beat over the head by the two sides to every story, argued in the strongest possible terms, making it clear that there’s always a justifiable position on both sides, and the truth of the world usually lives in that gray space – which is much larger than most folks want to acknowledge.
So, with Castro, I float along in the middle: I think he’s at least an average or better player on a good contract, and I think he still has offensive upside. I think he has been adequate defensively for a long time at shortstop, but I also think that if there’s an opportunity to improve there defensively by shifting Castro to another position – presuming his bat can justify it – the Cubs should explore it, even if that means a midseason change. I also think that if the right trade opportunity comes along, the Cubs should explore it.
If the Cubs don’t believe the defense can be improved by shuffling the deck, or if they don’t believe the right trade opportunity will come along, then I can get behind Castro as a Cubs player for several more years. I don’t think last night proved or disproved anything, and it was just one game among many.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not OK to talk about Castro’s struggles, and to start reasonably discussing what other avenues are realistically available, or whether things will turn around.
Go ahead and give it a try for the first time in years.