With Baez on the rise, Castro focused on winning Gold Glove

With Baez on the rise, Castro focused on winning Gold Glove

Kap sits down with Starlin Castro

February 19, 2013, 6:30 pm
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MESA, Ariz. – Nothing seems to faze Starlin Castro.

Not getting to The Show some six weeks after his 20th birthday, without a single at-bat at Triple-A Iowa, and only 57 games at Double-A Tennessee. Not a regime change at Clark and Addison that had the front office wondering whether he could stay at shortstop. Not the shadow of a sexual-assault investigation.

It doesn’t matter whether his manager is a future Hall of Famer (Lou Piniella), one-and-done (Mike Quade) or an old shortstop (Dale Sveum) telling him not to chase hits. It doesn’t matter that he’s playing for an iconic team in a major market where his mental lapses are amplified by talk radio, Twitter and Bobby Valentine.

So Castro isn’t worried about the next big thing – Javier Baez, No. 16 on Baseball America’s list of the game’s top 100 prospects.

“That’s business,” Castro said Tuesday. “I’m here right now and I like this team. I’m going to be on this team all my career. I know he got pretty good talent. Let’s see what happens.”

Three years after Ryan Theriot reported to Fitch Park after losing an arbitration case and issuing his “come and get it” declaration, Castro has spoken with Baez and knows the 2011 first-round pick can play. But the 23-year-old All-Star shortstop is focusing on taking his game to the next level.

“I see myself like my whole career is going to be at shortstop,” Castro said. “And I’m going to be a good shortstop, not (just any) shortstop. A shortstop that can win the Gold Glove, hit, everything.”

At this time last year, Theo Epstein admitted, “it was a bit of an open question in the organization whether (Castro) could stay at shortstop long-term.”

When Epstein took over baseball operations in the fall of 2011, Castro was the only true core player in the team president’s mind. Now Epstein sees Darwin Barney as a foundation piece, and Castro wants to win a Gold Glove to match the one his second baseman won last season.

Baez moved toward that level while tearing up the Midwest League last season. He hit .333 with 12 homers and 33 RBIs in 57 games at Class-A Peoria before struggling at Class-A Daytona (.188 average in 80 at-bats).

The 20-year-old was the youngest player the Cubs invited to their rookie-development program in Chicago last month. He’s enjoying his first taste of big-league camp. For those wondering when he’ll get to The Show, remember that he still hasn’t experienced his first full season of professional baseball yet.

The Cubs are going to develop Baez – who has the Major League Baseball logo tattooed onto the back of his neck – at shortstop for as long as they can. He was such a strong defender that he even played some catcher in high school.

“Yeah, I play shortstop, he plays shortstop,” Baez said. “But we know I can play third, I can play second and he can do it, too. It doesn’t really matter. … I can play anywhere.”

Valentine seemed to enjoy pointing out Castro’s back-to-home-plate concentration levels during an ESPN Sunday night broadcast in 2011. Those questions came rushing back to the surface last June, when Castro forgot how many outs there were during a bases-loaded sequence in San Francisco.

Sveum called it “the last straw” and threatened to bench Castro, who wound up playing in all 162 games and committing 27 errors, which tied him for the major-league lead in both categories.

“It’s one thing I challenged him to do,” Sveum said. “Your next step now in all this is to win a Gold Glove. Obviously, that takes a lot of focus and hard work and being focused for 150 pitches a game and 162 games. He’s got the ability to do it. The rest is up to him.”

Epstein has become a believer, projecting a breakout season offensively in the near future and reminding you that Castro is still younger than some of the names you’ll see on the top-prospect lists.

“He certainly has all the physical tools to be able to play shortstop,” Epstein said. “His error rate is something he can improve upon just by more consistent concentration and I think that’s something you’ll continue to see as he matures. He’s always going to be able to make plays at the extremity of his range. He’s very athletic. He’s got a strong arm.

“I think now we all feel he definitely can – will – be a really good one.”

By locking up Castro with an extension that could be worth up to $76 million and run through 2020, the front office unveiled the blueprint they could use with core players like Jeff Samardzija and Anthony Rizzo, maybe even Baez one day if everything goes according to plan.

“It’s just reassuring to see what they’re doing as a whole,” Samardzija said. “You take Castro and Edwin (Jackson) and a couple other guys and see what direction they’re going and what they want to do. Because easily none of that could have happened. They didn’t have to sign Castro. They didn’t have to sign Edwin.

“They could have spent (no) money and put us in the same spot. You’re excited to see what they’re doing. We’re excited to get this thing going and really see how all the pieces are going to fit together.”

Castro – who admitted that the contract negotiations weighed on him last summer – still set career highs with 12 triples, 14 homers, 78 RBIs, 36 walks and 25 stolen bases.

“You feel a little bit more relaxed,” Castro said, “because I know my family’s going to be good right now. It’s just play baseball and forget about everything.”

One year after having to answer questions about an alleged sexual assault – charges were never filed – Castro said he hasn’t talked to Carlos Marmol about his teammate’s abuse case/extortion attempt, that he doesn’t know anything about it other than what he’s seen in the newspapers back home in the Dominican Republic.

The Cubs closed their clubhouse to the media at 8:40 on Thursday morning and directed their players to the weight room, where the marketing department would give a presentation. Even if we never see another billboard with a Cubs shortstop opposite Derek Jeter, that’s the pristine image Castro would like to project.

That’s an impossible dream, but Castro wants to be an October fixture, a leader, someone young players like Baez can look up to at Wrigley Field. But there has to be a single-minded focus, none of the mental mistakes that made people wonder if he can play shortstop.

“Eliminate everything,” Castro said. “Those things won’t happen. This year I’m concentrating more on my game plan. I’m going to be perfect.”