While the Chicago Cubs have progressively gotten worse at the Major League level over the last few seasons, culminating in a 101 loss 2012 season, there have been fewer and fewer bright spots in Wrigleyville. Former franchise pillars like Ryan Dempster and Aramis Ramirez have departed and whether or not they were behind them, the wins, (much like the bright spots) have also been fewer and far between for this proud franchise.
It is obvious at this stage in the game that the Cubs are in a transition phase where the new regime of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are trying to continue the purge of the bulky contracts and aging veterans at the Major League level (I am looking at you Alfonso Soriano) that were left to rot from the Hendry era. It will be a long road but the end game being a new foundation created by a strong farm system with high upside cost controlled impact players, something the current roster is almost completely devoid of at the present.
Enter Starlin Castro!
The soon-to-be 23 year old Castro has become the face of the Cubs franchise and (along with Anthony Rizzo) will be one of the few bright spots in 2013 for Cubs Nation. For fantasy purposes he is likely to be one of the top five shortstops by seasons end because of his ability to contribute in all five standard 5x5 categories despite not being the leader in any of the traditional scoring categories.
So what makes him worthy of a spot on your team and what can we expect in 2013?
Volume: In 2012 Starlin Castro was one of four players to play in 162 games. Prince Fielder, Ichiro Suzuki, and Adam Jones were the others. Castro was the only shortstop (and only player in the NL) to play in all 162 games. Upon further review this is really not all that surprising since he played in 151 games in 2010 (26 in Double-A) and 158 in 2011. He led the National League for the second season in at-bats and despite playing on a team that only scored a combined 613 runs he scored a team high 78 (or roughly 13% of the team total) despite splitting his time pretty evenly hitting either 2nd, 3rd, or 5th in the lineup. Castro tacked on 183 hits in 2012 which was good for 16th highest in all of baseball and third highest at his position behind Derek Jeter and Jose Reyes on his way to posting a career low .283 average which was still seventh best by a shortstop in 2012. As for the RBI's he drove in 78 in 2012 which was the second highest total from a shortstop behind only Hanley Ramirez. He tacked on a career high 14 home runs which was the ninth best total from a shortstop but combined his burgeoning power with a career high 25 stolen bases good for fourth best by a shortstop in 2012. With Castro so much of his value is derived from the volume of at-bats he takes and he is poised for another high total in 2013 as he is young, healthy, and part of team that depends on his presence near the top of the order. Look for Castro to again challenge for the league lead in at-bats in 2013 as his total should be around 640+ range.
Power/Speed Boost: In each of the last three seasons Starlin Castro has seen his home run totals increase. While that much is obvious to the casual observer what is not so obvious is how he is doing it. His peripheral statistics point to an increase in his ISO (Isolated Power: Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average) which is a great sign as it shows Castro is moving away from hitting singles and towards hitting for extra bases. He posted a career high ISO in 2012 at .147 up from .125 in 2011. To put that into perspective J.J. Hardy, who hit 22 home runs in 2012, had an ISO of .154-- a mere four points higher than Castro. Now does this mean Castro is a small bump in ISO away from hitting 20+ home runs? No. But it means he has a decent chance at 20 home runs if a few other things break right for him, namely his HR/FB%. Over the last three seasons Castro has seen his HR/FB% rise from 2.6% in 2009 all the way to 8.0% in 2012. This statistic is trending in the right direction along with his FB% which has risen from 29.2% to 32.0% over the same time period. Considering his ISO trend, HR/FB%, and general FB% increases I think it makes sense to project Castro to hit upwards of 15+ home runs in each of the next few seasons and he will likely be pushing the 20 home run plateau as soon as 2014, especially if this article from Fangraphs holds true.
As for his speed, Castro not only had a career high 25 stolen bases but he also had a career high 12 triples which tied him for the most amongst shortstops with notorious triples fiend Jose Reyes so it is clear that Castro has speed to burn. Yet despite his clearly above average speed Castro was caught a league high 13 times on steal attempts and had a very mediocre 66% overall success rate in 2012. Personally I think this has a lot more to do with a lack of base running instincts and awareness on the base paths than it does for Castro's ability. If you have watched Castro you know that he still has a lot to learn about playing the game, even though he has tools off the charts, and I think base running along with defense are his two biggest areas of needed improvement in 2013 and beyond. I could imagine Castro stealing upwards of 30+ bases as he refines his approach on the base paths especially if he is relegated to a more traditional #2 hitter.
Batting Average Bump: Since he was 17 years old Starlin Castro has hit for average. He is almost always at or near the .300 plateau. In 2007, his first professional season he hit .299 in the Dominican Summer League. In 2008 he hit .311 in the Arizona League. He then went on to the split the 2009 season between the Class-A Advanced Florida State League and the Double-A Southern League where he again hit a combined .299, this time over 500+ plate appearances. He started the 2010 season where he ended the 2009 season as part of the Southern League and proceeded to hit .376 over just 26 games before being called up to the Major League level where he hit .300 as a rookie in 125 games. He followed up his rookie campaign with a .307 batting average in 2011 only to falter in 2012 and post a .283 average (if you can call .283 faltering). One of the biggest reasons for the dip in batting average is the fact that his BABIP was down from .344 in 2011 to .315 in 2012. Now before you start in with the whole ".344 is unsustainable, he was bound to regress like he did in 2012" talk he posted a .346 BABIP in 2010 as a rookie and as a minor leaguer never posted a BABIP below .323 and on average it hung around the .340 mark. He is able to maintain such a high BABIP because of his excellent contact skills and his ability to hit line drives and ground balls for hits something that will likely continue to improve as he continues his development. I fully expect his BABIP to bounce back to the .330-.340 range that he has sustained up until 2012, but I would be remise if I didn't mention that his Contact% has been decreasing each season along with his Swinging Strike Percentage. I think a big part of that has been pitchers adjusting to his approach at the plate and not making contact inside the strike zone as evidence by his decrease in Zone Contact Percentage and in Zone Swinging Percentage. These are certainly correctable attributes that given this sample size may end up in nothing more than blip on the proverbial radar but they are trends worth monitoring when projecting Castro's short term statistical value.
To Sum It Up: Likely a five category contributor who will not be a leader at any one category but rather an above average contributor at all. Still extremely young and has the ability to add both power and speed (read more steals) to his game by refining his approach at the plate and on the bases. Probably one of the first 3-5 shortstops taken in standard leagues in 2013.
2013 Bold Prediction: .302/.331/.439 with 16 HR, 84 R, 81 RBI, 28 SB in 699 PA