Can it really be that Starlin Castro has gone from the next big thing to yesterday's news in four short years?
If that's the case, Castro has a big chance this year to become a headline-grabbing item again.
After bursting onto the Cubs' scene with a bonfire debut in 2010 and making all-star teams the next two seasons, Castro's career has gone ice cold, and it's anybody's guess as to why.
Today, many Cubs fans are ready to cast Castro aside -- at least to another position -- and hand his shortstop job over to the latest phenom: Javier Baez.
The Cubs are proclaiming their confidence in Castro, and they've given him a new manager and a fresh start.
"Castro is our shortstop," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "We have all the confidence in the world that he'll remain our shortstop."
Here's how far Castro has fallen as he approaches 24 years old:
• He batted .300 in his rookie campaign of 2010 and followed it with a line of .307/.341/.432 with 10 home runs and a WAR (wins above replacement) of 3.0 in 2011.
• In 2012, Castro made his second All-Star Game and had a line of .283/.323/.430 with 14 home runs, 78 RBI and a WAR (wins above replacement) of 3.6. During that season, Hoyer and team president Theo Epstein signed Castro to a seven-year, $60 million contract extension.
• But the bottom fell out last year, as Castro struggled with a line of .245/.284/.347, playing at below replacement level.
As to the reasons, take your pick: The Cubs messed up Castro by trying to making him a more patient hitter and taking away his natural aggressiveness; then-manager Dale Sveum couldn't communicate with Castro; or distractions got the best of the young player.
Finally, after a big game against the Phillies last Aug. 31, Castro seemed to get to the crux of things.
"Be me, that's what I want to be," he said. "Be me, and if I strike out on a bad pitch, so what. That's the feeling I need."
Castro's troubles have been well documented by baseball researchers and stat gurus. Despite the push for patience, Castro's walk rate (4.3 percent) last year was a career low and his strikeout rate (18.3) was a career high.
Jeff Zimmerman of fangraphs.com put it this way: "He took over 300 more pitches in 2013 than in 2012 in almost the same number of plate appearances. Usually a more patient approach leads to more strikeouts and walks. He saw the jump in strikeouts, but his walks fell to a career low.
"After looking over his different splits way too much, he basically did not come out first-pitch swinging in 2013 compared to previous seasons. … He performs significantly worse when he goes 0-1 over his career compared to when he swings at the first pitch."
After an off-season of stepped-up workouts, Castro seems to have gone to spring training clear of mind.
"It was really hard," he told reporters in Arizona, referring to 2013. "I never had a bad season like that one. It's tough for me, especially when I went home, and I think about myself, and think 'Wow.' I tried to be strong, clear my mind and think about this year."
He also seems to have a supportive manager in first-year boss Rick Renteria.
"This is a tremendously gifted individual who has obviously not had or played the way he's capable of playing," Renteria said. "We have to address certain things. We have to figure out what's making him tick or not tick the way we want him to tick."
For 2013, Castro may open as the team's leadoff hitter. Batting first, Castro has a line of .300/.345/.431.
At some point, probably sooner rather than later, something will have to give because Baez is coming on fast. Between two minor-league stops last year, he went .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs and 111 RBI.
The 44 errors he made are cause for concern, and the Cubs will give Baez time at other positions during Cactus League games. But a player with that kind of power and bat speed will be hard to keep down on the farm.
Until then the job is Castro's, and stats bible Baseball Prospectus holds out plenty of hope for him.
"Still only 24, a comfortable Castro is capable of batting .300 with adequate (if occasionally unfocused) shortstop defense, few walks and above-average power for the position," the book's authors write.
"That's a tremendously valuable player, even if his low on-base percentage keeps him from being a table-setter. This season will go a long way toward determining if Castro becomes a long-term cog or a cautionary tale."
This will be worth watching.
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