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What's wrong with Starlin Castro?

6/11/2013

Monday was a big night for a potential future stud Chicago Cubs shortstop, as top prospect Javier Baez bashed four home runs in a 9-6 win for Class A Daytona over Fort Myers, becoming only the second Florida State League player in 94 years to hit four home runs in one game (Ryan Harvey in 2006). Alas, Baez, the organization’s top pick in 2011, is only 20 years old and probably years away from starring at Wrigley Field, but it hasn’t stopped Cubs fans from longing for his eventual promotion, because so many seem fed up with the current option.

In other news Monday night, current Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, all of 23 years old and already boasting nearly 600 career hits and a few All-Star game appearances, was booed while going 1-for-4 and hitting seventh in a foggy 6-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. He has four hits in his past 42 at-bats.

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 Brian Kersey/Getty Images Brian Kersey/Getty Images

Starlin Castro may be slumping now, but this could be a good time to get him at a bargain.

Castro seems to have lost quite a few fans in the first two months this season, which seems premature; he wasn’t, incidentally, one of the top 30 picks in ESPN’s Franchise Player Draft a week ago, after being No. 9 a year earlier. Castro remains 100 percent owned in ESPN standard leagues, but his owners are making noise on message boards and Twitter: The fourth-round pick from ESPN live drafts and No. 3 shortstop is currently 24th among shortstops on the Player Rater, worse than Jayson Nix, Daniel Descalso, Pedro Florimon and the long-ago demoted Josh Rutledge.

It’s easy to forget today, with Castro nowhere near the hits leaderboard, that since he made his big league debut at 20 on May 7, 2010, only four players have more hits. The guy has been a consistent hit machine with emerging power and stolen base potential, and few shortstops have accomplished so much at such a young age. Yet he’s not hitting at the same level this season (especially of late) or performing well in the field, and it has caused Cubs fans and fantasy owners to reassess a player that seemed well on his way to stardom. So what’s gone wrong this season?

He was never a patient hitter to start with, and this season he’s walking less, striking out more and well, you know how that combination generally ends up. Castro is hitting .243. I’ve seen him a few times in the past week and his at-bats have been quicker than usual, but he’s always been aggressive. It’s also generally been tough to tell what his plan has been at the plate or if he cared much about it, but again, he’s 23 and a career .290 hitter. Castro -- and his Cubs teammates -- seemed to slog through Monday’s game against Reds right-hander Homer Bailey, with Castro striking out, lining out to second base and grounding out to second before smashing a rope RBI double to deep left field when the game was out of hand in the ninth inning.

One problem this year is Castro is making considerably less contact across the board on pitches in and out of the strike zone, and he is swinging less. His batted ball rates don’t show much deviation from past seasons, and there hasn’t been talk of injury. Frankly, it just looks like a player in a giant slump; Castro hit .277 in April and only .252 in May, and so far in June is struggling at .071. Still, it’s tough to bet against someone with this track record.

While fantasy owners haven’t parted ways with Castro yet, it’s probably coming if his June numbers continue. I can’t imagine a better middle infielder available on your league’s free agent list -- certainly the likes of Nix, Florimon and Descalso are not -- but sometimes giving up on a player means dealing him for 50 cents on the dollar. I wouldn’t do that, either. In fact, knowing Castro’s hit rates the past three seasons, it’s a wise time to try to acquire him from an impatient owner. The problem is that other than history, there’s little in Castro’s 2013 stats to suggest a wonderful hitter is lurking. All three of his home runs came in April, along with two of his three stolen bases. His walk rate has been poor each month. His season BABIP is actually reasonable, higher than .300 in April and May. He hasn’t hit left-handed pitching, which is a bit odd, but also easy to see that normalizing in more at-bats.

In this case, it’s time to stop focusing on what Castro doesn’t do particularly well, but on the many base hits he has accrued. I don’t see any reason to project 15 home runs or 20 steals at this point, but he’s shown he’s capable of contributing in each category. A year ago, Castro hit 14 home runs, equally divided from first half to second, and he stole 25 bases. Sure, he was caught stealing more than the average player, but as with his occasional lapses in the field, chalk it up to focus. He still attempted 38 steals. This season, Castro has attempted four. Perhaps the incessant losing is catching up to him, but the team was terrible last season and Castro played better upon signing his long-term contract extension, batting .306 in the final third of the season.

Perhaps Castro doesn’t turn the corner into big-time power anytime soon, but if redrafting today, the only shortstops I’d definitively choose over him for the remainder of 2013 would be Troy Tulowitzki and Jean Segura, and I’d certainly consider Everth Cabrera for the stolen bases. Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez are injured, while Castro is about as durable as they come. He’s going to be fine, and he remains a worthy starting shortstop for the Cubs and fantasy owners.