On Opening Day, Starlin Castro will be 24 years old.
It's difficult to remember at times, since he's already played just shy of four full big-league seasons, and more than 600 games.
But, yes, he's still a young player and learning the game at the major-league level, which is hardly the ideal location for an education.
Nevertheless, this is a huge year for Castro, and it would be equally huge for the Cubs if Castro regains his all-star form.
It remains to be seen whether Castro is really a Theo Epstein-type player, though up to this point there's little evidence to suggest they're meant to be together. But if Castro has a great year, it opens up myriad options for Epstein.
The Cubs can trade Castro and probably get a lot in return. They can keep him and move him to second base, paving the way for Javy Baez to take over, or leave Castro at short and move Baez to third, which would allow Kris Bryant to play left, setting up a future outfield of Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.
If that's not enough to make a Cubs fan drool, nothing will.
So either way -- trade him or keep him -- the Cubs and Castro are both in need of a big year from the shortstop.
In the meantime, the Cubs are doing everything they can to help Castro make that happen, talking him up and insisting loud enough for Castro to hear that he still has a bright future in Chicago.
"We gave Starlin a big contract. We're still really optimistic about his future," said GM Jed Hoyer. "He had two really good years in the big leagues, a good year, and a year he'd probably like to have back. I think he can bounce back and have a really good year and a really good future. We're still every bit as high on Starlin as we have been."
The Cubs fired Dale Sveum, who could no longer coddle his most important project, and hired Rick Renteria, who is creating a very comfortable environment that includes -- so far -- excusing pretty much every mistake Castro made at the plate or in the field last season.
But while Castro needs to have a short memory, it's hard to forget how bad he was at short -- where he had mental lapses and a negative defensive WAR -- and at the plate -- where he had his worst major-league season.
Out of 25 big-league shortstops with at least 400 plate appearances in 2013, Castro was 24th in wins above replacement with a negative 0.6, 21st in OBP (.284), 20th in OPS (.631) and 19th in average (.245). He had a career-high 129 strikeouts.
After Castro signed a seven-year, $60-million contract extension in August 2012 and finished that season with career highs in homers (14), RBI (78) and stolen bases (25), he fell to 10 HRs, 44 RBI and 9 SBs last season.
With runners in scoring position, Castro batted .235 in 2013, the worst of his career, and down from .293 in 2012 and .308 in 2011.
The Cubs, at least publicly, are not giving up on Castro. It's fair to wonder what they really believe, but there's no doubting that a good year for Castro is crucial for all concerned.
After all, another ugly season makes Castro difficult to move, and it means at least another year in Chicago playing shortstop and a position move for Baez, who may yet wind up as the everyday shortstop.
It's not like Castro and the Cubs are out of time. They have no chance to compete this year and almost none the year after, so it's not exactly do-or-die, but the Cubs would like to get Baez situated and not have to move him around the diamond.
The longer it takes to make a decision on shortstop, the longer it takes to make a decision on positions for several prospects.
So sooner for Castro would definitely be better for everyone involved.
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