Hope is the eternal narrative of the Cubs fan—and its latest inca rnation is Starlin Castro. Now all the 21-year-old has to do is turn his promise into superstar performance. He mig ht be closer than you think
This is an article from the May 9, 2011 issue
In a small room deep inside baseball's haunted cathedral sits the youngest player in the major leagues, a Dominican prodigy who knows nothing of black cats, the Billy Goat or Bartman. Curses? The baby-faced shortstop with the golden swing laughs at all that nonsense. Three years ago he was a no-name prospect in his first days in minor league camp and in need of a uniform number. Thirteen was available. A coach said, "You know that's bad luck here?"
"Really?" the kid said. He smiled back. "We'll see."
It's a few hours before first pitch at Wrigley Field, and here is the kid, all of 21, still skinny—his Latino coaches call him zancudo (mosquito)—and baby-faced but now the new hope of the Cubs. In his second major league season he is the toast of Chicago's North Side, where the Addison Street vendors hawk his best-selling number 13 jersey and VIVA CASTRO T-shirts to the faithful who have watched so many phenoms bloom and wilt but have never seen an overnight baseball sensation quite like this. Starlin DeJesus Castro arrived in the majors on the night of May 7, 2010, at age 20. Against the Reds in Cincinnati he hit a three-run home run in his first at bat and a bases-loaded triple in his third to set a record for most runs driven in by a player (six) in his major league debut. He has been slicing up big league pitchers ever since. Last year he finished the season as the 20th player in the history of the game to hit .300 at age 20, and last weekend he finished April with the second-highest hit total in the majors (40) and first among all shortstops in batting average (.348) and runs scored (18), while bouncing between the top three spots in the lineup as if trying to fill all the Cubs' offensive holes by himself.
"It's easy to forget he just turned 21," says Cubs manager Mike Quade. (Castro's birthday is March 24.) "The only time it's been applicable was when the team went to Las Vegas during spring training, and we had to remember to keep him out of the darn casinos."
Castro is not only the face of a franchise that's been desperate for its next big thing since Sammy Sosa skipped town with his boom box seven years ago, but he's also a new face for a younger, faster, more athletic game. The Dawn of the Dazzling Phenom is becoming a familiar narrative—last year saw the spectacular debuts of Jason Heyward, Buster Posey and Stephen Strasburg—but the rise of Castro defies all logic. In an age in which front offices and analysts are armed with prospect reports as detailed as CIA databases, here is a talent that's emerged, seemingly, out of nowhere.
As recently as two years ago few outside the Cubs' organization had even heard of the 6-foot, 190-pound righthanded hitter from the fishing town of Monte Cristi. Castro is quiet and shy and speaks little English. (He conducts interviews with an interpreter, third base coach Ivan DeJesus, at his side.) At the plate he is a paradox: an aggressive free swinger (in his career he has taken a cut at more than 30% of the pitches he's seen outside the strike zone) who rarely punches out (with eight strikeouts in his first 124 plate appearances of the season, he had the second-lowest strikeout rate in the National League).
"He's amazing," says Cubs leftfielder Alfonso Soriano. "He went 0 for 4 [on April 15 against the Rockies], and I joked that I never saw him do that before, so he better get four hits the next day. And then he goes out and gets four hits with a home run."
"It speaks to how special he is that he's doing this while playing, arguably, the most demanding position in a city with as much pressure as Chicago," says Quade. "He's not in awe out there. It's like he's playing a street game in Santiago."
Yes, because Castro has been so good, so soon, it's easy to forget that he's still only as old as your average college junior. He's the first player born in the '90s to make a major league roster—the earliest World Series he recalls watching as a boy was Marlins-Yankees in 2003, when he was 13. But then there are also nights like April 25, when in the second inning against Colorado he committed three errors (a bobble, a dropped grounder, a bad throw) and cost his team the game. On cruel nights like those, it's clear to everyone that this golden child—the Cubs' savior, the game's next great shortstop—still has some growing up to do.
The skipper knew that there would be good nights and there would be bad nights. There always are in the education of a shortstop. "Aside from maybe catcher, shortstop is the most demanding position on the field—you can make the case that in that first year, two or three times a week, you're going to see something that's never happened to you before," says Quade.
A longtime minor league coach and manager before succeeding Lou Piniella last August, Quade was the skipper of Oakland's Double A Huntsville team in 1997 when a brash 23-year-old Dominican shortstop named Miguel Tejada showed up and was fast-tracked to the majors. "Miggy just loved to play the game," Quade says. "He was a year and change into [his major league career] and [A's manager] Art Howe wanted to give him a day off, but Miggy didn't want to sit because he was dead set on breaking Cal Ripken's record. That crazy son of a gun wasn't kidding at all, he was already thinking about breaking the record. The fire that burned inside Miggy, I see that inside of Starlin."
Tejada—whom Castro says was his boyhood idol—broke into the majors with Oakland late in 1997 and would win the American League MVP award five years later. "Miggy and Starlin, they're two completely different players." Quade says. "Miggy had power from the get-go. Starlin's power will come. Miggy was more advanced defensively. What they have in common is the desire and the willingness to learn. Playing that position, you have to be willing to learn."
Castro's education began on the ragged neighborhood fields of Monte Cristi, a coastal town of 25,000 situated on the northwest edge of the Dominican Republic. The oldest son of a fisherman and a housewife, Starlin—like so many others in his home country—started playing the game with a milk carton for a glove when he was seven. He remembers his father, Diogenes, waking up every morning at six to head for the boats docked off Monte Cristi. Asked what he'd be doing if he weren't in baseball, Starlin says, without a beat, "Fishing." Diogenes wanted his son to be a pitcher, but Starlin always knew he was destined to be a shortstop because, as a boy, he would "take ground balls all day, until the sun went down."
In the fall of 2006, Starlin, then 16, showed up with his uncle Manuel for a tryout at the Cubs' academy in Santiago. A scout named José Serra watched as the boy took grounders at shortstop. "He was so weak, he had nothing coming out of his arm," recalls Serra, "but he had a good arm action, loose and quick, and that was something." Serra saw something else when the boy took his cuts during a batting practice session. Nothing the boy hit reached the warning track, but "he was the only one who made contact on everything they threw to him—fastballs, changeups, sliders, everything," says Serra. "You don't see 16-year-olds who can do that." After the two-hour session Serra approached Manuel and asked what it would take to sign the boy. "He said $60,000, and I said how about $35,000?" recalls Serra. "He said no, but we could talk after he had another tryout a few days later with the Indians."
Driving from Santiago back home to San Pedro, Serra thought to himself, If the Indians see this kid, they're going to sign him. He called Manuel, and they agreed on a $45,000 signing bonus. When Starlin returned home that day, he told his father, "Now you can rest. No more fishing. I'll take care of the family now."
Castro was only 19 when, in 2009, he was promoted to Daytona of the Class A Florida State League, where "if he'd hit .225 and played steady defense, we'd have accepted it, knowing that he was just 19," says farm director Oneri Fleita. Instead, he emerged, seemingly overnight, as an offensive force. "Next thing you know, he hits .300, makes the All-Star team, makes the Futures Game. If anyone tells you they expected that, then that would be nonfactual."
In a report to the Cubs' front office that year, Buddy Bailey, Castro's manager at Daytona, wrote, "When [Castro] gets to the big leagues, the team he plays on will be a championship contender every year." Says Bailey now, "I've written that once before [about] another player, and that was Derek Jeter." The manager was part of the Cubs' discussion about what to do with Castro's aggressive plate approach. "We all thought he had the baseball savvy and mental makeup to make adjustments on his own," says Bailey. "So we said, 'Let's let him go.' Best decision the organization made."
Two players in the history of the game have hit .300 in their age 20 and 21 seasons while playing shortstop: Hall of Famer Arky Vaughan, who was 20 when he made his Pirates debut in 1932, and Alex Rodriguez, with the Mariners in the mid-1990s. Castro has a chance to be the third, though sabermatricians aren't the only ones who wonder whether Castro's numbers are sustainable if he doesn't hold back his swing (his average of 3.51 pitches per plate appearance ranked 175th at week's end) and improve his walk rate, which was the sixth lowest in the National League (one every 31 plate appearances). "His plate coverage and his ability to put balls in play over such a wide range, more than the 17 inches of the plate, is very unique, but I'm not convinced yet it's good," says Quade. "Eventually pitchers are going to challenge you, as they always do, on the outside two or three inches and the inside two or three inches. Yeah, every so often he'll reach out and hit a ball three or four inches off the plate to rightfield, and that'll be great. But I think in the long run, improved discipline is really going to help him."
The growing pains have come mostly in the field, where he made 27 errors last year and is, according to advanced fielding metrics, a below-average fielder. The Cubs, however, believe he has Gold Glove upside. "He's raw, but he gets to balls that we haven't seen anyone get to since Shawon Dunston," says general manager Jim Hendry. In December, Castro spent time in Santiago training with DeJesus and minor league infield coordinator Franklin Font. Every morning for two weeks they worked with him on lining up his shoulders toward the dugout when throwing to first and on quickening his first step toward ground balls. Castro's progression was quickly tested on Opening Day against the Pirates. "It's the very first play of the season, and he has a brutal play to his left that if it's last year, he doesn't make," says Quade. "I've just spent the whole spring telling everyone how much progress he's made, and I'm thinking, Please just make this play. And he does, and I just smile and think to myself, Damn, this kid is growing in front of our eyes."
The Cubs, who finished April two games under .500, were a fifth-place team last year despite a $144 million payroll. But they now have what few teams do: a young, elite player at a premium position. Once the game's most starlit position, shortstop has witnessed a recent dimming as onetime bulwarks such as Jeter and Tejada have aged. "We were talking on the team plane the other day that having a kid like Starlin helps you build this thing a little different now," says Hendry of an organization in transition under a new ownership group led by Tom Ricketts. "It's like back when [Ryne] Sandberg was playing second base [in the 1980s and '90s], it didn't matter if Gracie"—first baseman Mark Grace—"didn't hit 30 home runs at first. Now, with a shortstop that might hit 25 and .330, if you have a guy coming through your system that's a good player but not a power guy, you can live with that."
The phenom himself knows little of Chicago history—when he signed with the team, Castro could name only two Cubs: fellow Dominicans Soriano and third baseman Aramis Ramirez. Perhaps it was always going to take a kid oblivious to history to lead the cursed franchise out of the darkness. Yes, there will be good nights and there will be bad nights along the way. But this truth should give Chicago hope: The education of Starlin Castro has only just begun.