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Castro may pick up offensive slack for Cubs

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- All the Cubs have been able to do so far regarding their vacancy at third base is cross potential free agents off the list. The answer, though, may be shortstop Starlin Castro.

On Wednesday, the White Sox snatched free agent Jeff Keppinger, signing him to a three-year contract reportedly worth $12 million. The D-backs tagged Eric Chavez, giving him a one-year, $3 million deal. The Cubs did consider both, and were more interested in Keppinger, even though he sustained a broken leg this offseason.

"It's a supercharged market in a lot of different areas," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Wednesday, the third day of the Winter Meetings. "We're still on the lookout. We have a number of irons in the fire as far as third base. We're confident we'll land someone we feel good about. It certainly is a position of scarcity."

Which brings us back to Castro. A two-time All-Star, the shortstop has a .297 batting average after three seasons. He led the National League in hits in 2011. He'll turn 23 in March, and could provide the power most teams get from their third basemen.

"The biggest thing with him is we know the talent, we know the ability, the 200 hits," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "What I want to see out of him is keep progressing mentally and understand the process of becoming a winning player and not a hit seeker. [We want him to] become more of a winning hitter, situations, drive runs in, understand the situations."

There were a few lapses on the field by Castro but none on national TV.

"Defensively, I think he came a long way but still has to concentrate more," Sveum said. "I think we got him -- just throwing a number out there -- [concentrating] probably 80 to 85 percent of the time. We've got to get that to 95 percent. I don't think anybody ever focuses 100 percent -- I think you'd be lying if you said that. He took a lot of pride in that and got much better for a 22-year-old kid."

Castro led all National League shortstops with 78 RBIs. If the Cubs can't find the right third baseman, they could go with a platoon and hope Castro picks up the slack. Hoyer has high expectations.

"For me, my opinion only, this is roughly when [Castro] should start to break out," Hoyer said. "He is young and I don't expect him to be a veteran next year, but I think he has a chance to put up really big numbers. I don't know if the power comes next year, but the power is going to start to come."

Castro did hit 12 triples and 29 doubles to go along with his 14 home runs. He hit three home runs in 125 games in 2010 and 10 in 2011. The power will come. Plus, Castro now has peace of mind. He signed a seven-year, $60 million extension with the Cubs last August.

"I think the contract situation was something that was on his mind last year," Hoyer said. "He now knows how we feel about him, he knows he has security. ... He can just go out and play. I would be disappointed, candidly, if he didn't take a step forward next year, and I know he probably feels the same way."

The Cubs do have young shortstops in the system in Javier Baez and Junior Lake. They could move Castro to third. Hoyer said that hasn't been discussed.

"He has to cut down on some of the youthful errors and 'lack of focus' errors," Hoyer said. "He'll do that in time. He can definitely play shortstop and he's more valuable to us as a shortstop. You look around the league, and how many teams are getting that kind of production out of shortstop? And he can do better. I think when he does take that step forward, that's a big advantage.

"If you get offensive production up the middle, it makes your job so much easier because you don't have to rely on the corners," he said.

The Cubs may leave the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center on Thursday without a third baseman. They're still talking to Ian Stewart and have offers to various free-agent third basemen still on the market.

"I don't think you have to walk out of here with deer antlers or anything," Hoyer said.

They do have the second pick in Thursday's Rule 5 Draft, and have been approached by teams eager to move up in the order. The Cubs have $60 million committed to players next year, and that includes money to prospects Jorge Soler and Gerardo Concepcion. The team payroll has topped $100 million each of the five seasons. They have money to spend.

"We try to think of it as ultimately we're investing money and that's what we're doing in players, and if you can't find a wise investment, hold off and there will be other times to make a wise investment," Hoyer said. "You try to be patient, and it's not a sexy thing to talk about, being patient, but I'll feel a lot better about that than making a big splash about somebody you don't feel convicted about."

Chicago Cubs, Starlin Castro