By Bruce Levine-
(CBS) MESA, Ariz. — Starlin Castro must return to All-Star form in order for the Cubs to move in the direction of becoming the organization they hope to become.
The two-time All-Star has worked hard in the offseason to get into the best physical condition of his brief career. Cubs conditioning expert Tim Buss spent more than a month in the Dominican Republic with Castro working on conditioning, agility and strength in the fall.
“I went to this baseball camp in Florida for two weeks to work in the winter on my core muscles and strength,” Castro said. “Other players including Welington (Castillo) were there. Between that and what Buss did for me, I am stronger than I ever was.”
Castro also spent a month in Florida with his own conditioning instructor. Despite early success in his career and a $60 million contract, Castro still has much to prove to himself and his Cub bosses after a season in which he hit a career-low .245 with a .284 on-base percentage, 10 homers and 44 RBIs.
Showing the same skill set that he once displayed was his mind set going into the offseason.
“I had a lot of motivation too get better,” Castro said. “People close to me said, ‘Don’t try to listen about too many things.’ They said, ‘Just try to be me.’ I will just try to get back to being me and concentrate on my work.”
With middle infielder phenom Javier Baez coming swiftly through the Cubs’ system, Castro will be hearing whispers about his status at shortstop if doesn’t return to form.
“Baez is a good friend of mine,” Castro said on his first day at Cubs’ camp. “I told him, ‘If you play hard you will be in the big leagues soon.’ We don’t control where we play. I will play hard and they will play hard. After that, they (management ) will make the decision.”
The organization admitted it made a mistake in asking the young player to take more pitches in 2013. A disconnect between manager Dale Sveum and Castro appeared to contribute to the physical and mental breakdown in the shortstop’s season. All of that contributed to a poor year for Castro and the dismissal of Sveum and three coaches.
Castro was asked if the former manager was too hard on him.
“I have nothing to say about that,” Castro replied.
The real answer was that a lack of faith existed for both Sveum and Castro. One day in the late summer, Castro was demoted to hitting eighth in the batting order. After going 0-for-4, the next day he was mysteriously promoted to batting at the top of the lineup. The fate of Sveum and some of the coaches was basically determined at that juncture.
Part of the blame for Castro’s slow start in 2013 was a flabby body (he was 10 pounds overweight) and a hamstring injury in the first week of spring games. Castro also has another year of communicaton with the Cubs’ front office under his belt.
So he now has a better understanding of their goals for him and the Cubs’ future.
Bruce Levine is a baseball reporter/analyst for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.