Yankees Magazine: Middle Man

Donning pinstripes and continuing his transition to second, Starlin Castro looks to build upon past success

March 28th, 2016
Castro expressed two goals for his first season in New York: to stay healthy and to win. (New York Yankees)NEW YORK YANKEES

They have only been around each other for a few days, but already the chemistry -- and camaraderie -- is there.

When new Yankees second baseman Starlin Castro sits down for dinner at Charley's Steak House in Tampa, Fla., with his double-play partner, Didi Gregorius, in late February, the two sound like they have been teammates for years.

For as many things as they share in common -- including being in their mid-20s, being fluent in both Spanish and English, and having overcome early-season struggles in 2015 -- Castro and Gregorius can count just as many differences.

"I will definitely try the alligator bites," Gregorius said, pointing to the popular appetizer on the menu. "But I will tell you right now, there's no way Starlin will eat alligator."

"You're right," Castro responded. "No way."

Before they even have the chance to place a drink order, the ballplayers spot fellow Yankees teammate Carlos Beltran, who is dining with former New York Mets General Manager Omar Minaya. After coming over to the table to say hello, Beltran walks out of the dimly lit room, past a few other dining rooms and toward the oak bar near the front of the restaurant. Moments later, he returns, this time with a bottle of wine, one of the 700 selections the Tampa landmark offers.

"This is for you guys," Beltran says as he places a 2013 cabernet sauvignon from California's Caymus Vineyards on the table. "Enjoy."

"Didi doesn't drink wine," Castro said. "But that's OK. There will be more for the rest of us."

Besides having quickly gotten a sense for each other's likes -- and dislikes -- at the dinner table, the two had already formed an on-field bond after practicing together for just a few days.

"We are having fun on the field," Gregorius said. "It's fun having a Latin guy in the infield, so I can speak Spanish when we're out there. It's amazing to me that right from the first day, we were pushing each other to be better. That's a good thing for both of us."

"I'm going to be spending more time with him than I will be spending with my son," Castro responded, referring to 2-year-old Starlin Jr. "We're already friends, but we're going to be like family before you know it. I think we're going to be teammates for a long time."

Although he's thinking long-term, Castro quickly shifts the conversation to 2016.

"We're going to be the best middle infield in the game," said the second baseman, who was traded to the Yankees from the Chicago Cubs in December. "I really believe that. We can be that good. We've already talked about that."

Nodding his head, Gregorius agreed.

"We're going to be really good."

When the waiter arrives at the table, Castro orders a ribeye -- and no appetizer.

In addition to the fried alligator, Gregorius orders a grilled chicken dish for his entrée. He doesn't eat red meat.

"I'll get Starlin to try some of this alligator," Gregorius said. "But he's not going to get me to have any steak."

Gregorius is right. When the dish holding several small pieces of fried alligator meat arrives, Castro takes a small piece.

"Not bad," he said. "But not that good, either."

Those phrases had never been applied to Castro's play, until a slump derailed his progress last year.

The Dominican Republic native signed with the Cubs as a 16-year-old amateur free agent in 2006. After three full seasons in the Minors, the right-handed hitter was called up to the Big Leagues in 2010, at the age of 20.

"I was a little nervous playing at Wrigley Field in the beginning," Castro said. "It seemed like the fans were just waiting for me to get to the big leagues. I made three errors in my first game at Wrigley, and that was tough. But I was able to calm down after that."

Playing shortstop, Castro quickly became a star in the Windy City. In 125 games in 2010, he batted .300. The following season, he led the National League with 207 hits and earned the first of his three All-Star selections.

"I had a lot of great moments that season," Castro said. "I really enjoyed when we would play a team with a big-time star because it seemed like they all knew who I was. That was flattering, and it surprised me most of the time. Making my first All-Star team was an amazing experience. That was the first time my mom, dad, sister and brother came to the United States to see me play. That's the best moment I've had in baseball."

Although he has never matched his 2011 hit total in any season since, Castro remained one of the best shortstops in the game over the next three seasons.

"There was a lot of pressure after those first two seasons," Castro said. "We had a lot of veteran players who were almost at the end of their careers. I quickly became the face of the franchise, and I was 22 years old. I tried to just be myself and help the team every day."

Luckily for Castro, one of those vets was former Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano. Understanding what it was like to deal with high expectations at such a young age -- and under the spotlight of a big city -- Soriano took Castro under his wing from day one.

"When I got called up for the first time, he invited me to live with him," Castro said. "I didn't have to worry about finding an apartment or how I was going to get to the ballpark. He took care of everything. We would go to the ballpark earlier than we had to be there every day, and we took extra batting practice and fielding practice together. He treated me like a little brother, and he really helped me with everything."

In 2014, Castro earned his third All-Star selection. That year, he tied his career high with 14 home runs while posting a .292 batting average, his highest since 2011.

"I began to feel comfortable again that season," Castro said. "I feel like I was confident in who I was as a player for the first time."

That comfort didn't last long, though. For Castro, the 2015 campaign included the most difficult stretch he had ever had in baseball. Beginning in early July, Castro went into a profound slump, collecting just 20 hits in 113 at-bats. With Castro's batting average down to .236 on Aug. 7, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon made the difficult decision to sit the once unstoppable shortstop.

"That was really tough for me," Castro said. "When I went home at night, I couldn't even fall asleep. I was used to playing 150 games each year, and I couldn't believe I wasn't going to be out there. But at the same time, I understood the decision, and I didn't want to bring any negativity to the team. I just tried to support my teammates and help them in any way I could."

When his team was not on the field, Castro worked diligently to fix his swing. With the retired Soriano long gone from the Cubs' Wrigley Field home, Castro found another baseball mentor in former Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez. Serving as the Cubs hitting consultant, Ramirez worked closely with Castro.

"We watched video of my swing together," Castro said. "That helped because he realized that my stance was too open. He helped me to make the adjustments I needed to make. I remember him telling me, 'You've got enough talent. You're better than this. Now, let's go to work.' We got to the ballpark early and tried to get better every day."

With Addison Russell proving that he was ready to man shortstop on an everyday basis, Maddon asked Castro to take ground balls at second base. Castro, a shortstop for almost his entire baseball life, embraced the challenge of playing a new position.

"After about three games, Joe started to put me in at second base late in games," Castro said. "That gave me a chance to get used to playing second base. I was able to get in the mindset of taking it one at-bat at a time, and it seemed like I was getting a hit almost every time I got up. I started to feel good about myself again."

Although he was doing well at the plate, Castro admits that making the transition to second base after only a few days of practice was more difficult than he imaged it would be.

"Usually, when you change to a new position, it happens in Spring Training," Castro said. "That way, you have a long time to figure things out. I was essentially trying to learn a new position in about four days. I really tried to focus on what I needed to do out there, but it was hard to learn everything on the fly. Getting used to flipping the ball to the shortstop was especially tough for someone who had played on the other side of second base forever."

Regardless of the circumstances, Castro remained determined to contribute to a Cubs team that was fighting for a postseason berth. With each passing day, that's exactly what he did. In his last 47 games of the season, beginning with his first appearance at second base on Aug. 11, Castro batted .353. That surge raised his season average to .265.

"I was thankful that I was able to come back to being the player I had been," Castro said. "I tried to make the most of the opportunity the Cubs gave me to be an everyday player again, and I'm proud of how I was able to rebound."

Castro's improved play helped the Cubs clinch one of the two National League Wild Card spots. The team then defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game and moved on to the NL Division Series against St. Louis.

Castro batted .286 with one home run in the NLDS, helping the Cubs advance in four games against the rival Cardinals. Although he managed only two hits against the New York Mets in a losing effort in the NL Championship Series, Castro believes that getting that much postseason experience will benefit him.

"In any sport, the most pressure athletes have is in the playoffs," Castro said. "Now, I know that I can handle that pressure. It helped me a lot. It was fun to play in those games, especially the ones we won."

As the conversation about the postseason continues, the waiter brings the main course to the table.

"I hope we get to experience what the Cubs did last year -- but with a better ending," Gregorius said. "That's why we play the game."

After digging in to his 20-ounce steak, Castro agrees.

"People ask me all the time what my goals are," said Castro, a lifetime .281 hitter. "I only have two goals: I want my team to win, and I want to stay healthy so that I can be a part of it."

With only nine hits separating him from the 1,000-hit milestone, the question of how much stock Castro puts into individual goals is raised.

"I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't excited about it," Castro said. "I want to have a good spring and get off to a good start in the regular season. I want to get it out of the way quickly, in the beginning of April, so that everyone can get completely focused on winning games, not milestones."

By acquiring Castro, who split his offseason between the Dominican Republic and Tampa, the Yankees have certainly taken a big step toward their ultimate goal of winning a championship.

"It was a great move," Gregorius said. "He's a hard worker, and he does everything the right way. He's still learning at second base, but for only having played there for a short time last year, what he's doing now is impressive."

As dinner wraps up, Gregorius, an avid photographer, reaches for the laptop computer he had brought in his backpack. Since the beginning of Spring Training, the shortstop had been taking photographs of his experiences in Tampa for a photo essay in this issue of Yankees Magazine. On this night, he's proud to show off the photos to his new friend.

"That's one thing I didn't know about Didi," Castro said as he peruses several photos of the sunset over Tampa Bay that Gregorius had taken earlier that evening. "He's a great photographer."

A beaming Gregorius begins to laugh.

"That's OK," he said. "We've got plenty of time to get to know each other better. I've also got plenty of time to get you to eat alligator bites."