PITTSBURGH – Just because the Cubs believe Addison Russell is ready to join the big-league lineup and become another one of their Next Big Things at Wrigley Field, does that mean Starlin Castro is on his way out?
That seems to be conventional wisdom and/or desire of a certain core of fans and media.
Russell is to debut Tuesday in Pittsburgh as the Cubs’ second baseman, a position he has played at AAA Iowa for exactly the last six games.
Many consider him the best shortstop in the Cubs’ organization, which seems to be where Castro becomes so automatically expendable to so many observers.
But barring a stupid-level of return from another team, trading Castro would be foolish, regardless of how good Russell becomes.
Russell might yet force Castro into a position change – maybe to third base, with Kris Bryant possibly bumped eventually to the outfield.
But Castro not only is a valuable piece of the Cubs’ lineup now; he’s also a cost-efficient player for the duration of a contract that runs through 2019 (with a 2020 club option) – in fact, one who seems to get more valuable with every hand-wringing complaint by coaches and executives over the decline in hitting in the game these days.
When converted shortstop Hanley Ramirez gets a four-year, $88 million deal from the Red Sox as a three-time All-Star – same number of All-Star selections as Castro before the age of 25 – that says something about the perceived scarcity of players with the ability to hit.
The Red Sox gave fat third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who turns 29 this year, an even bigger, five-year $95 million deal. He has two All-Star appearances and, by the way, hit only two more home runs last season (16) than Castro (who spent the last three weeks on the DL with an ankle injury).
The fact is Castro is at least two years shy of traditional baseball prime age and produced three All-Star seasons and 846 career hits before his 25th birthday despite playing for four managers, two GMs and with a constantly churning roster around him throughout his career.
And in an age when 30 teams in a $9 billion industry average two $15 million players on their rosters, Castro won’t make more than $11 million in a season unless the Cubs exercise the $16 million option in his age-30 season.
In other words, they’ll never have to pay Castro more during any season of his contract than they’re paying this year for reliever Edwin Jackson.
And then there’s this: Castro seems to have found another gear this season. He says he’s inspired by the new manager and competitive focus of this year’s team. And he’s playing like it.
“I feel different,” said Castro, who leads the team with a .327 start the first two weeks of the season and is tied with Jorge Soler for the team lead with 16 hits. “I think the most important thing is the confidence the manager gives us. It’s not going to be good every day. But we try. And I think that’s the most important thing right now.”
Most impressive is the energy and sharpness Castro has shown in the field so far.
“How about Castro at shortstop?” manager Joe Maddon said after Monday’s 5-2 win over the Pirates in which Castro robbed Josh Harrison of hit in the first and made several more sharp plays throughout the game.
“Castro was amazing at short tonight,” starting pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “I saw something out of him tonight I hadn’t seen in a while. He seemed to have more of an aggressive nature about him tonight. He was fluid and just tremendous at short.”
Castro has always seemed to genuinely want to become a great all-around player, and tried to follow the leads of each new manager, infield coach and hitting coach that came through the Cubs turnstile during his career.
Maybe the communication is better with this manager and staff. Maybe the obvious influx of better talent and the real intention of trying to win again has made a difference.
Whatever it is, Castro said he does more daily work before games in the field than he ever has. And has taken a more aggressive approach and is serious about responding to Maddon’s challenge to several of his players to go after a Gold Glove.
“I don’t want to be no joke anymore,” Castro said. “I try to make every play aggressive. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter.
“It’s really awesome how they talk to us. [Maddon] says the most impressive thing for him is: ‘Next year you’re in front of home plate and they give you the Gold Glove.’ I’m working hard for that.”