Starlin Castro hasn’t felt this good since his 2010 rookie year, when anything seemed possible after jumping straight from Double-A Tennessee into The Show. At age 20, the Cubs shortstop saw everything in front of him and wondered: Why not?
Going to the All-Star Game. Hitting .300. Getting the Derek Jeter billboard. Leading the next contending team at Clark and Addison.
Castro took a lot of heat as the Cubs cleaned house, burned through players/managers/executives and kept finishing in fifth place. It became: Why doesn’t Castro do this? Or why can’t Castro do that? People wondered if Theo Epstein’s front office could use Castro as a trade chip or if hotshot prospect Javier Baez would come and get it.
The Cubs still have a long way to go before they can contend in the National League Central, but they can feel good about their $60 million franchise shortstop.
Castro drove in their only run during Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field, staring down Mat Latos and bouncing a single up the middle. And with that, Castro now has 45 RBI, or one more than he did last season.
“I don't go up there and give at-bats to anybody,” Castro said. “That happened to me last year a lot.”
After a 2-for-4 night, Castro is hitting .287 and on pace for 20-plus homers and around 90 RBI, showing the power Cubs officials hoped would fall into place. He also feels comfortable and respected hitting cleanup.
“The best thing is I’ll be there every day,” Castro said. “I’m not moving around in the lineup or anything.”
Bounce-back seasons from Castro and Anthony Rizzo, All-Star-level performances from Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel and a reworked bullpen haven’t meant much to the bottom line. The Cubs are 32-44 and still stuck in last place after $52 million pitcher Edwin Jackson (5-8, 5.22 ERA) let a 1-1 game get away from him in the sixth inning on a chilly 59-degree night.
“I’ve seen crazier things happen in baseball,” said Jackson, who wound up allowing four runs in 5.1 innings. “Teams get down and all of a sudden everyone gets hot and you get off on a streak and you win seven, eight, nine ballgames in a row. And things turn around pretty fast. We’re definitely not writing the season off.”
“We’re playing a lot better than last year,” Castro said. “We got a lot of things together. We pick each other up. I think we’re pretty close. Those guys know what they’re doing, especially with the (talent) we have in the minor leagues. When they come here, we’ll be a better team.”
The Cubs absolutely needed to know what they have in Castro and Rizzo, because Baez and Kris Bryant will go through the same ups and downs whenever they leave Triple-A Iowa, and that learning curve could take years. Maybe Castro will take some of the pressure off them. With 11 homers, he needs only four more to set a career high.
“He’s a young man who has the ability to put the bat on the ball,” manager Rick Renteria said. “The more I see him, he’s getting bigger. He’s filling out. He’s turning into – I don’t want to say a man, because he’s a man already – but you can start to see the size and maturity of his body come together.
“Is it possible he’ll hit a lot of home runs over the course of his career? It’s possible. A lot of it goes back to him maintaining a consistent approach at the plate.”
Castro works hard at his craft, listens to his coaches and wills himself into the lineup every day. He’s started all 76 games at shortstop this season, after playing 158, 162 and 161 across the last three years. He’s keeping it simple.
“When you’re feeling good, good things happen,” Castro said. “That’s what I’m doing, going to home plate, feeling good and making things happen.”