Thursday September 4th, 2014

Starlin Castro has rebounded from a disappointing 2013 season to put his career back on track, but on Tuesday, the 24-year-old shortstop suffered a high ankle sprain that will likely end his season. While his injury may end his season on a down note, it does have a silver lining, in that his absence will help the team sift through an impressive array of young prospects.

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Castro suffered the injury in the first inning of Tuesday's game against the Brewers. After singling, he rounded the bases and scored the second run amid a three-run rally, but he caught his left cleat as he was sliding into home and was in obvious pain even as he touched the plate. He departed the game after limping off the field; x-rays ruled out a fracture, while an MRI showed a significant sprain of his ankle but no further ligament damage.

The severity of Castro's injury means a four-week period to recover and rehab, and with less than four weeks remaining in the season, that means the math is working against him. The Cubs aren't shutting him down, but neither are they expecting him to return to the lineup. Via's Carrie Muskat, here's what general manager Jed Hoyer had to say:

"We're operating under the assumption that he's out for the year… We're not going to shut him down. He's going to work hard to come back. His mentality is he can beat four weeks and come back. If nothing else, it will send him into the offseason healthy."

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At 64-76, the Cubs have little at stake from a competitive standpoint, but whether or not Castro returns, what makes his injury such a downer is that he was riding a prolonged hot streak. Following a dismal July showing, Castro was batting .388/.417/.524 in 108 plate appearances dating back to Aug. 1, collecting multiple hits in 12 of 27 games while going hitless just twice. The performance lifted his overall batting line to .292/.339/.438, good for a career-best 114 OPS+, and miles beyond last year's .245/.284/.347/73 OPS+ bellyflop. He matched his career high in homers (14), set new ones in slugging percentage and walk rate (a still-low 6.2 percent) and posted his best slash stats since 2011, a performance that earned him All-Star honors for the third time in the past four seasons.

Notably, Castro also managed to avoid the kind of high-profile mental mistakes on the bases or in the field that marked previous seasons, something that may have been abetted by the contrast in his handling by first-year manager Rick Renteria with the "tough love" approach of predecessor Dale Sveum. Renteria and Hoyer both waved off a recent failure to hustle out of the box, pointing to Castro's quick apology as well as his playing in the wake of a recent tragedy in which the shortstop's cousin and three close friends were killed in a car accident earlier in the month.

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Which isn't to say that Castro’s season was flawless. He stole a career-low four bases in eight attempts and was six runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved (five below according to Ultimate Zone Rating). His 2.1 WAR was a vast improvement on last year's -0.6, but even prorated through the end of the season, it was on track to be lower than his 2011 (3.4) or 2012 (3.0) showings.

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For some, Castro's minimal growth beyond his early major league success represents a disappointment, but as it is, he's a very valuable asset. In what would have been his second of four years of arbitration eligibility (due to Super Two status) had he not signed a seven-year, $60 million extension, Castro made a modest $5 million; he's due another $43 million over the next five seasons, maxing out at $11 million for 2019 with a $16 million club option and $1 million buyout for 2020.

In the face of rising salaries, such a price tag is easy to justify even if Castro never becomes much more than a three- or four-win player. That holds particularly true given the current dearth of high-end major league shortstops. Via, from 2002-11, shortstops totaled 66 seasons of at least 4.0 WAR, an average of six per year, with no fewer than five in any given year. In 2012, just one shortstop (Erick Aybar) reached that plateau, last year three (Andrelton Simmons, Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki) did so, and this year, only Tulowitzki and Jhonny Peralta have done so, with J.J. Hardy and Jimmy Rollins within range at their current paces. Simmons and the oft-injured Tulowitzki are signed to long-term deals, the former very similar to Castro's (seven years, $58 million). Hardy, Ramirez and Rollins will all be free agents this winter heading into their age-32, 31 and 36 seasons, respectively — which is to say that they're hardly guaranteed to maintain their level of performance, and are likely to be a whole lot pricier than Castro.

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Lowering the bar to look at three-win shortstops under the age of 30 reveals a total of 28 such seasons from 2011-2013, two of which came from Castro, and another 15 from Hardy, Aybar, Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, Yunel Escobar and Alexei Ramirez. Escobar, Hardy and Ramirez are all in their thirties now, and Cabrera has played his way to second base amid declining offensive and defensive performance as he heads into free agency just shy of his 29th birthday. Andrus and Aybar are signed long-term, with the latter one of only two shortstops to reach the 3.0 WAR threshold this year; Simmons and Zack Cozart are on pace.

Amid that landscape, the Cubs have not only locked up Castro, but they have also developed Javier Baez and traded for Addison Russell. The 21-year-old Baez came into this season ranked among the game's top-five prospects by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus; after clouting 23 homers in 103 games at Triple-A Iowa, he was promoted to the majors on Aug. 5. He's hit only .179/.217/.390 in 129 PA with the Cubs, and despite the monster power that has produced seven homers, there are legitimate concerns about his proclivity for strikeouts (52, against six walks). But that was already a known issue at the time he was ranked, which is to say that the vast consensus is that he’ll find success at the major league level. Baez has played mostly second base since his arrival in the majors, bumping rookie (and former shortstop) Arismendy Alcantara to centerfield, but he's likely to get the bulk of the playing time at shortstop in Castro's absence.

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The 20-year-old Russell, ranked seventh by BP and 14th by BA at the outset of the season, missed more than two months of the season due to a hamstring strain; he's hit .295/.350/.508 with 13 homers in 68 games, all but five of which have come with his first taste of Double-A. Even with rosters expanding as of Sept. 1, Russell wasn't recalled, and neither was Kris Bryant, the second overall pick of the 2013 draft who has blasted 43 homers in Double-A and Triple-A this year. Hoyer has no plans to summon either because they're not yet on the 40-man roster; the team is anticipating a crunch in protecting those who will be eligible this winter and wants to keep as many assets as possible.

While it’s been suggested that the Cubs were primed to trade Castro — likely for pitching, an area in which the Cubs lag behind relative to their plethora of position prospect — Hoyer is in no hurry to part with him or any of his other shortstops, preferring to continue experimenting with them around the diamond. Via the New York Times' Jorge Arangure Jr., he recently told reporters, “I think we can be a better team for it if we end up doing that." Elsewhere within his report, Arangure quoted a pair of anonymous AL talent evaluators, one executive and the other a scout, both of whom suggested that Russell was the best fit for the position long-term, with the former suggesting Baez at third base and Castro at second. With first base occupied by Anthony Rizzo and rightfield by the recently-promoted Jorge Soler, that would suggest Bryant winds up in leftfield, though his arm strength suggests rightfield is an option with Soler moving to left — which leaves the question of what to do with Billy McKinney, the other prospect acquired from the Athletics in the Jeff Samardzija trade.

History suggests that not all of those prospects pan out, but the bottom line is that the Cubs have an impressive array of options under their control for the next few years. The most established of those is Castro, whose 2014 rebound only strengthens their hand, injury or no. Given their slim likelihood of their contending in 2015, the team has little urgency to deal him simply to fill some other team’s gaping hole at shortstop (a favorite topic in New York), and they can use his temporary absence to their advantage. As season-ending injuries go, that’s about as favorable an outcome as there is. 

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