MESA, Ariz. – Because this is going to be Year 4 in the big leagues, it’s easy to forget Starlin Castro’s age – younger than Brett Jackson and not much older than Jorge Soler.
The All-Star shortstop was born in 1990 in the Dominican Republic – three days before Junior Lake, who has never played above Double-A Tennessee. Whenever this wave of prospects crashes onto Wrigley Field, Castro should be entrenched in the middle of it all.
Right now, it’s hard to project the kind of leader Castro will be, considering he won’t celebrate his 23rd birthday until March 24. But it’s clear that he doesn’t look for ways to sit on the sidelines, and that can’t hurt the clubhouse culture.
It’s been one week since Castro pulled up running to first base and injured his left hamstring. He thinks he’s around 100 percent and doesn’t feel the same tightness that forced him to get a precautionary MRI. But he’s accepted that he likely won’t play again until early next week as the Cubs play it safe with one of the organization’s most precious assets.
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“I want to be strong,” Castro said Wednesday at HoHoKam Stadium. “I don’t want to go to the game right now and get hurt again and be out maybe one month of the season or two weeks.
“I want to make sure that I’m good – make sure that I can play the whole season.”
Manager Dale Sveum again said that Castro would be playing if this happened to be the regular season, along with Brent Lillibridge (groin injury), a utility guy who still has a good shot to make the team and be the backup shortstop.
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Castro became one of only four players to play 162 games in the big leagues last season, joining some elite company: potential Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki; Detroit Tigers slugger Prince Fielder; and Baltimore Orioles All-Star/Gold Glove centerfielder Adam Jones.
“It’s an important goal for me,” Castro said. “I like to play. I don’t care where, what league, I like to play. Because that’s the only thing I know how to do: Play baseball. That’s why I put (162) in my mind.”
The critics will jump on Castro’s mental lapses, and he knows he has to improve his concentration. But you would probably space out once in awhile if you played in every game from April 5 to Oct. 3 during a 101-loss season.
On some level, Castro will be carrying on what he learned from Alfonso Soriano, long after the $136 million megadeal is off the books: You should play through pain and want to be in the lineup every day.
Soriano took Castro under his wing and let the rookie stay at his place in Chicago in 2010. It’s impossible to miss the amount of preparation Soriano puts in every day to get his aging body ready.
“He’s always got a smile on his face at the ballpark,” said Matt Szczur, the 23-year-old outfielder. “No matter what’s going on, he’ll be smiling and that lifts everybody else up because he’s 37 years old and he’s still coming to the field working hard and being a pro.
“That’s the biggest thing I learned from him. He’s in the weight room as much as I am, always making sure his knees are all right, always rolling out, always getting stretched.”
At an age where he could be ticketed for Triple-A Iowa and still be right on track, Castro already has two .300 seasons, two All-Star selections and 529 hits on his big-league resume.
The next big thing also happens to play shortstop (for now). Castro has spoken a few times with 2011 first-round pick Javier Baez, who has a locker in the same row.
“He’s good,” Castro said. “I like him. He’s a good person, too. (I just told him): Play hard.”