MILWAUKEE – If Starlin Castro had been hearing too many voices in his head at the plate, at least the Cubs feel like some of their defensive principles are sinking in now.
Castro will always get more attention for the moments he spaces out on national television. Call it The Bobby Valentine Effect. And there will always be someone coming after his position, whether it’s Javier Baez or The Next Next Big Thing.
But with Gold Glove ballots being distributed to managers and coaches this week, Cubs manager Dale Sveum thinks Castro has answered the questions about whether he can be a frontline shortstop.
“He’s made huge steps, as far as fielding the groundballs, the throwing, the body control,” Sveum said. “Playing the holes has gotten better. That still needs to improve. But when he’s getting balls in the six-hole, he’s got a chance now.
“All those kind of things are getting better. It’s just keep (attacking) the problem and getting rid of those little things that pop up once in awhile. But I think they’re still (happening) less than they were last year.”
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Castro showed his defensive range during Monday’s 6-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. There was the brilliant barehanded play in the first inning, charging a ball hit by Jean Segura and throwing out the National League’s leader in stolen bases. There was also the wild throw in the third inning that soared over Anthony Rizzo’s head for Castro’s 19th error, allowing Norichika Aoki to go to second base.
Sveum talked up Welington Castillo, whose 2.5 defensive WAR leads all catchers in the majors. There’s Rizzo, who has a .996 fielding percentage and a 6.0 Ultimate Zone Rating that’s tops among all first baseman in the N.L., according to FanGraphs.com. Sveum called Darwin Barney “the obvious choice” since the reigning Gold Glove second baseman has “done nothing to give his away.”
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But everything revolves around Castro, who entered Monday with four errors in his last 72 games (or since the end of his 269 consecutive games streak) and a .988 fielding percentage that ranked second among N.L. shortstops during that time.
That stretch also included Castro getting benched midgame for forgetting how many outs there were against the St. Louis Cardinals, another brain freeze at Wrigley Field.
“There’s a couple mishaps here and there,” Sveum said. “But as far as the routine plays now – of course, we see him every day – I hate to think anybody’s a more accurate thrower at this point. He’ll make an error here and there, but it ain’t too often he throws a ball away.
“He’s crossed that bridge and getting rid of the ball when he has to (is) a big obstacle that he’s overcome now. You don’t see him tapping the glove and taking his time.
“Now the ball’s touching his glove and he’s getting rid of it. That was a huge obstacle that he had to get over.”
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The Cubs will have to settle for subtle defensive improvements in what has been a disappointing year offensively for the two-time All-Star shortstop. The N.L.’s hits leader in 2011 was batting .228 in late June and got dropped to No. 8 in the lineup for one game in late August.
“I have no idea, man,” said Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez, the ex-Cub who’s close with Castro. “He’s got too much talent to be hitting .230. That’s the only thing I can say. He’s way too talented to be hitting what he’s at right now.”
The Cubs didn’t make a $60 million investment in Castro projecting he’d be a .240 hitter or a one-way player. They hope this can be written off as the growing pains of being 23 years old and a face of the franchise.