Yankees Magazine: Student teacher

With so much talk about young talent, it can be easy to forget just how raw Starlin Castro still is -- and how much potential he still has

May 15th, 2017
With so much success so early in his career, it's easy to think of three-time All-Star Starlin Castro as some grizzled veteran. But the 27-year-old is a vital member of a young and exciting Yankees lineup. (New York Yankees)

With a youth movement ongoing for the Yankees both at the Major League level and throughout the organization, it can be misleading not to include among the youngsters. Yes, he is now in his eighth Major League season, which is far and away more experience than any of the "Baby Bombers." But this past March the second baseman celebrated his 27th birthday, which hardly makes him ancient. Even Castro could not help but feel a bit world weary during Spring Training amid all the young infielders working their way up the system: , , and Tyler Wade, among others.
Castro made a point to be approachable to the new wave of young players. He is not that far removed from the experiences they will go through. Castro was just 16 years old when he signed with the Chicago Cubs out of Monte Cristi in the Dominican Republic. After 60 games in the Dominican Summer League and more than a year at the organization's Dominican Academy, Castro arrived at the 2008 Arizona Fall League still a teenager with a decided language barrier.
"None," Castro said about how much English he spoke at the time. "Even in the Dominican Academy, we took just a little bit of English, and I was so young. When I came [to the United States], it was tough. We couldn't even order food at a restaurant in the beginning. When we went to the supermarket, we had to walk because we didn't know how to call for a taxicab.
"I just tried to learn as fast as I could. I would ask American guys how to say things. I wasn't scared of making mistakes when I was trying to say something in English. I wanted to learn. I watched a lot of movies and paid close attention and was able to learn pretty fast. I hung out with American guys in rookie ball playing video games and would ask them how to say what I wanted to say. They helped me a lot."

And now Castro feels it is his turn. "Mateo, Andujar, Torres, I talked to them all," Castro said. "Gleyber, I know him from Chicago. He's a very good kid. He asked me my advice, and I always tell him because that was how I learned when I was his age. It is really important to learn English. We have a translator to help us, but it is better to know English because it makes it easier to communicate with all your teammates. You can go to the mound and talk to the pitchers and let them know what you see that can help them. Communication is the key."
Of course, in Yankees terms, Castro is still a relative newcomer. He came to the team last year in a trade that truly worked out in the Yanks' favor. They dealt pitcher and a player to be named (eventually infielder ) for Castro. Then, at the trade deadline, Warren returned to New York -- along with Torres, the centerpiece of the deal -- in the swap that sent to the Cubs. And, of course, the fireballing Chapman is now back in pinstripes after signing a five-year deal as a free agent.
Talk about plus, plus, plus.
Castro's first year with the Yankees after six seasons with the Cubs had its share of highlights. He broke out of the gate by going 7 for 12 (.583) with two doubles, two home runs and eight RBI in his first Yankees series. Those eight RBI were the most by any player in his first three games with the Yankees since runs batted in became an official statistic in 1920. Those first three games were at Yankee Stadium, which became a comfort zone for Castro. Over the first month, he hit .305 with an .833 OPS. And for the season, he batted .310 with 15 home runs and 44 RBI at home.

That strong start was important, Castro said, "because of how everybody was talking about me coming here to an organization with a great history. I had spent all of my career with one team. This was new. It was a challenge, but right from the beginning I really liked it here."
Castro was prepared to enjoy his time in New York because of his relationship with former Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano. They were teammates with the Cubs for parts of four seasons. Soriano, who played his first five seasons with the Yankees and finished his career in New York in 2013 and '14, is godfather to Castro's son, Starlin Jr. The Castros also have a daughter, Scarlett, and they live near the Sorianos in Tampa, Fla.
Making the jump from Double-A ball to the Cubs in 2010, Castro became the first player who was born in the 1990s to reach the Major Leagues. And Soriano was there to help him along.
"When I came to the Big Leagues with the Cubs, he took me under his wing," Castro said. "He took me to live with him in his house for a month and a half until I was able to settle in and get my own place. So, we have a good relationship. He helped me a lot. He was the guy who really taught me how to be a professional baseball player on and off the field. We always talk -- even now that he is not playing anymore, we keep talking. He still works out every day and takes his kids to school and teaches them baseball, too.
"He used to talk to me about New York when we were with the Cubs and came here to play the Mets or the Yankees. When I got traded here, he told me, 'This is really a winning team. You are going to like it. There is only one goal with the Yankees: to win a championship. You are going to like that attitude. Just continue to play hard and put it in your mind that there is only one goal, which is to win the World Series.' I liked hearing all that and was excited to come to the Yankees."
Castro was the Cubs' regular shortstop for five seasons before new Manager Joe Maddon made a change in early August 2015 by switching Castro with , a highly touted shortstop prospect who was playing second base. Instead of considering it a demotion, Castro worked hard to learn the new position. Ironically, it seemed to spark an improvement at the plate. Castro was hitting .243 with a .278 OBP and a .320 slugging percentage while playing shortstop that year. As a second baseman, Castro's slash line read .339/.358/.583.
"I'm a real team player, and at that time it was important for me with the Cubs to move from shortstop to second base," Castro said. "The team was playing well in Chicago, but I was not hitting well at the time. So when they asked me to move, I felt the team was playing well and I didn't want to be the negative guy -- I don't want to bring negative things to a team. I just tried to learn to play the new position as fast as I could to keep the team going on a good streak.
"It took a good two weeks of me working extra time every day to make the transition. So when the Yankees had a need at second base and I got traded here, I felt confident I could do a good job for them."
The Yankees definitely had that need after a 2015 season in which they struggled at the position. Castro became an ideal fit, particularly after bonding so well in Spring Training with shortstop Didi Gregorius. Both 26 at the start of the 2016 campaign, Castro and Gregorius formed the youngest regular middle infield for the Yanks since second baseman Willie Randolph, 22, and shortstop Bucky Dent, 25, began a three-year run in 1977, according to the YES Network.
"We developed a really good relationship right from the beginning in Spring Training," Castro said. "We spent a lot of time with each other, hanging around together on the field and during batting practice. We became really good friends. The first time we met was (in 2012) when he was with Cincinnati, and we talked a little bit. Then we kept speaking to each other when he was with the Diamondbacks, and now we're the best of teammates. I feel really good playing with him."
They even filmed a memorable commercial for the Yankees in which they recreated a scene from the movie Step Brothers.
"And more is coming," Castro said, laughing. "We did one this year, too."

How they meshed at the center of the infield was more important than any of their acting chops. They not only clicked defensively, but also offensively. Castro and Gregorius tied for the club lead in RBI with 70 apiece. Castro's 21 home runs were a career high, one more than Gregorius's career-best 20.
"I was a little bit surprised at that," Castro said of his home run total, "because I never hit more than 14, which I did twice. I was never close to 21 before, but I really felt strong at the plate. When I feel that way, a lot of good things can happen."
Joe Girardi hopes to see more. "I thought he had a pretty good year last year," the manager said. "He had as many clutch hits as anyone we had last year. He just needs to continue to become more comfortable at second and grow as a player. I just want to see him build on last year."
One of Girardi's options when Gregorius sustained a strained right shoulder while playing for Team Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, resulting in his being unable to start the 2017 season, was to move Castro back to his old position. Girardi chose instead to use utility infielder at shortstop for the interim and leave Castro at second base, which was fine with him.
"Now I feel really comfortable there," Castro said. "For me, the most difficult thing was the double play. When you are at shortstop, you have the runner coming from first to second in front of you. But at second base that runner is at your back, and --- believe me -- you can hear him coming. Now it is a little better because of that rule where they can't slide too hard into the base. The other difference between shortstop and second base is that ... it seems when a right-handed hitter hits the ball to second base, it is always moving away from me to my left. At shortstop you have everything out front no matter who hits it."
One of the confusing aspects of Castro's first season with the Yankees was the question of his 1,000th hit. He originally was credited with career hit No. 1,000 on April 9 at Detroit on a single in the seventh inning. "I didn't even know it," Castro said, "until I saw everyone asking for the ball, then I thought, 'This has got to be something special.' The important thing is that we won the game. That comes before anything else."
Except that, a few days later, an official scoring ruling on a hit by Castro earlier in the game was changed to an error by Tigers right fielder J.D. Martinez. That made Castro's seventh-inning single career hit No. 999. He did not technically reach No. 1,000 until April 15, with a single to left field in the fourth inning at Yankee Stadium against the Mariners. But if you ask Castro which hit was his 1,000th, he will say it was the one in Detroit. After all, the Yankees won that game, whereas Seattle won the April 15 game. As he said, the victory comes before anything else.
Castro was off to another great start this season. His team-leading 49 hits through 35 games had helped propel the Yankees to an AL East-leading 22-13 record.
And any confusion about where Castro belongs is long gone.