Cubs see Starlin Castro raising his game to next level

Cubs see Starlin Castro raising his game to next level
April 21, 2014, 10:15 pm
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It’s hard to fit this into 140 characters or less, but it’s worth remembering the next time someone hammers Starlin Castro for his level of focus.

The Cubs never got above .500 at any point during the 2010 or 2012 seasons. One game over .500 wound up being their high-water marks in 2011 and 2013 – and never later than April 20. They appear headed toward another last-place finish in 2014.

Monday’s 5-1 victory over the worst team in baseball – the 5-17 Arizona Diamondbacks – left the Cubs at 6-12. So maybe it’s not all on the shortstop when the franchise is writing off entire major-league seasons.

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Of all the things Rick Renteria got asked about during a pregame media session that lasted almost 20 minutes inside the Wrigley Field interview room/dungeon, Castro should be a low-priority concern.   

“He got here when he was 20 (years old), and we assume he knows exactly everything he’s doing, and I think he’s still learning,” Renteria said. “I think we make a mistake thinking that any player in the big leagues is not still learning.”

Renteria is the fourth different manager Castro has played for since making his big-league debut on May 7, 2010, completely skipping Triple-A Iowa. Everyone from Alan Trammell to Pat Listach to Dale Sveum came away thinking Castro is a hard worker who’s coachable and cares about getting better.

“We studied him a lot,” Renteria said. “I think he’s actually learning how to play shortstop. He’s been playing that position, but he’s actually learning how to play shortstop. It’s a much more angular position. He was playing it a lot more laterally. He’s been working really hard with (infield coach Gary Jones). During practice, he’s really trying to be conscientious of the work he does. He’s been showing a lot of heart and a lot of fight. He’s getting after it.”

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After firing Sveum last fall, the Cubs quickly identified Renteria as a candidate because of his upbeat attitude and bilingual skills. Renteria said the staff talks to Castro in the dugout in between innings and leans on teammates to reinforce the message, even with Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney becoming a part-time player.

“It’s just part of how we do things,” Renteria said. “We’re kind of vocal. I think that’s just part of our nature. I remember playing for managers who were always talking to us in the infield. I don’t think it’s abnormal.”

Castro has gone 12 consecutive games without committing an error, sprinting after foul balls near the left-field line, making diving plays and throwing out super-fast ex-Cub Tony Campana to end Monday night’s game.

“His concentration has improved,” Renteria said. “(But) the run of the season will give a real indication of how he’s done and how he’s moving forward. You can’t really (judge) what a season is in a week. You have to give it a season. But are we moving in the right direction? I think so. I think he’s staying more in tune with what’s going on.”

Because it’s such a long season – and because Castro has to shoulder so much media attention on a team with such a low Q rating – the clip will go viral when the Cubs shortstop drifts at some point this summer.

But when Theo Epstein took over at Clark and Addison in the fall of 2011, he identified Castro as the one player to build around. By August 2012, the president of baseball operations had made a $60 million investment in the two-time All-Star shortstop.

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Castro is back hitting .288 and looking like someone who should raise his game again when the stakes are higher.

“Ultimately, he’s the one who has to bear the burden of staying focused for nine innings,” Renteria said. “The reality is a major-leaguer – a very successful major-leaguer – will do that. And that’s what he’s striving to become.”