Cubs confident in Starlin with Baez in the wings
Club insists shortstop's job is safe as it develops well of advanced infield prospects
MESA, Ariz. -- When the Cubs held the ribbon-cutting ceremony for their vast, state-of-the-art Spring Training headquarters earlier this week, they placed five super-sized baseball cards on a blue wall beside the stage where team officials shared podium space with the state and local officials who helped keep them from fleeing the Cactus League.
The action photos showed some of the Cubs' best-known players, including Jeff Samardzija, Anthony Rizzo, Welington Castillo and Edwin Jackson. The last spot went to platoon third baseman Luis Valbuena.
Did someone forget Starlin Castro? No, his likeness is elsewhere in the complex, on another wall. But I wouldn't have been surprised if Castro had been overlooked, confronted with a tough-love motivational tactic upon his arrival to camp.
Castro, the holder of the biggest contract signed during the Theo Epstein era, is front and center in the third camp under Epstein and Jed Hoyer -- and first for manager Rick Renteria -- at Major League Baseball's newest Spring Training camp. He has seen incredible highs and lows in four seasons since replacing Ryan Theriot as the primary shortstop, yet he is still seen more for his future than his past.
"This is a tremendously gifted individual, who has obviously not played the way he is capable of playing," Renteria said Thursday. "We have to address certain things, but [first] we have to figure out what it is that is making him tick -- or not tick the way we want him to tick. ... Obviously things haven't gone well, for whatever reason. That's done. I'm sure he's coming into this camp with a fresh, new outlook just as everybody does in the spring."
Castro arrived in a flash as a 20-year-old, but his game, built around a 200-hit bat and an out-producing arm, has deteriorated just as quickly. Epstein and Renteria believe there are many reasons to feel good about the organization that has endured 197 losses in the last two seasons, in particular the depth of talent that will experience the plush clubhouse for the first time on Friday.
"I think we've made tremendous progress,'' Epstein said. "There's a real dichotomy between how the organization is perceived from the outside and how we look at it internally, what the morale is internally. We just finished two days of organizational meetings. There is a tremendous amount of talent in this organization.''
Epstein was speaking of Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, as well as Junior Lake, Arismendy Alcantara, Mike Olt and Christian Villanueva. All are advanced prospects who could soon create a major surplus in the infield, and the advance of Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Matt Szczur could make it tough to continue moving infielders to the outfield, as the Cubs did with the 23-year-old Lake last year.
Castro has $49 million and six seasons left on the $60 million deal he signed late in 2012. How are you going to fit him, Baez (a shortstop who hit 37 homers in the middle Minors last year), Bryant (the 2013 first-round pick who is one of the top power-hitting prospects in the Minors) and a couple of the others onto a roster?
That's a question that will begin taking shape this spring. There are a variety of potentially attractive options, but they all start with Castro finding his footing after a season in which he had a .284 on-base percentage, 10 home runs, six caught-stealings on only 15 attempts, 22 errors and rough defensive metrics.
When Epstein references "tremendous progress,'' he is not speaking of his shortstop, who has regressed significantly. It can't have helped that Castro will soon be playing for his fourth manager and third hitting coach, nor that he's had some off-the-field issues, but he looked lost late in 2013.
There were no radical conclusions regarding Castro at the organizational meetings that Epstein mentioned. He'll continue to play shortstop exclusively while Baez adds to his limited experience at second and third base, as he did last spring.
"Castro's our shortstop,'' Hoyer said. "We have all the confidence in the world he'll remain our shortstop. I think he'll keep working hard, keep improving. He knows there's still growth there. But [because] he turns 24 in March, he has time on his side. He can certainly play shortstop. Javy can also play shortstop as well.''
Baez hit 20 of his 37 home runs in 54 games at Double-A Tennessee. He committed 44 errors, but given that he was only 20, that's not especially discouraging.
"He's got to cut down on the errors, but he understands that,'' Hoyer said. "There are a lot of really good shortstops in the big leagues who made errors in 'A' ball and Double-A. He actually fielded really well, played good defense for us at Tennessee last year … He'll be playing shortstop at Iowa, but we do have to expose him to other positions, so when he comes up here, that he has that ability. We see Starlin as our shortstop.''
Bryant, who is likely to open the season at Tennessee, is on track to be the long-term third baseman, although his size (6-foot-5, 215 pounds) contributes to speculation about a future move to right field. Alcantara, a speed/power player, reluctantly moved from short to second to accommodate Baez's arrival in Double-A last year and joins Baez among those threatening to displace Darwin Barney at second base. Olt, who must show he has overcome concussion-related issues, and Villanueva will get their opportunities at third base. Lake could see some time in the hot corner as well as in center and left field.
Castro was seen as an elite young shortstop when he signed his contract, a guy who could fall out of bed hitting .300. That guy would be a prime trade chip were he to reappear this spring. Castro will be a troublesome road block if he doesn't.
It's going to be fascinating to see these infielders bumping shoulders over the next month or so, if not longer. Castro-versus-Baez will be a good argument along the way, but it's the incumbent who has the contract and the responsibility that goes with it.