By Scott Lindholm-

(CBS) The Cubs have many questions as spring training opens and they begin preparations for 2014 and beyond, but among the most important for this year regard Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. I’ll discuss Castro in this post and Rizzo next week.

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Entering 2013, Castro had built up a tremendous resume in his first three years — 2010 Rookie of the Year, two-time All-Star, recipient of MVP votes after the 2011 season and among the all-time leaders in hits in his first three seasons. This was a solid foundation for a player poised to enter his prime, which is why the Cubs locked him up through 2020 with a long-term contract. Team expectations were not high for the 2013 season, but the continued improvement of Castro was one reason to pay attention.

2013 didn’t turn out as expected. Baseball Prospectus 2014 had this to say about Castro’s 2013:

Square peg, meet round hole. The Cubs spent much of last season trying to temper Castro’s see-ball, hit-ball approach in favor of a more selective aggression, with disastrous results. The evidence is mixed on whether the organization’s tinkering led to Castro’s struggles at the plate…but that doesn’t matter. Castro clearly believed it did.

These are his career numbers from Baseball-Reference:

2010 20 125 506 463 53 139 31 5 3 41 10 8 29 71 .300 .347 .408 .755 100
2011 21 158 715 674 91 207 36 9 10 66 22 9 35 96 .307 .341 .432 .773 111
2012 22 162 691 646 78 183 29 12 14 78 25 13 36 100 .283 .323 .430 .753 102
2013 23 161 705 666 59 163 34 2 10 44 9 6 30 129 .245 .284 .347 .631 72

These numbers don’t include his 22 errors. 2013 might have been a perfect storm of nonstop chatter to change his batting style, take more pitches, field his position better and other advice, and he just fell apart. One number that stood out was the decrease in on-base percentage (OBP), falling from being above average (MLB’s average OBP is around .320 in recent years) to well below in 2013. This is an issue for someone projected to be a top-of-the-order hitter. I was curious to see if his 2013 could just be a blip and looked at players using a whole host of criteria — I looked for young (28 or under) middle infielders with OBP drops of 30 points or more in a year to see if they recovered. I went back to 1980 to keep the list somewhat current, and this is what I found:

Year Pos Player Prior Year OBP OBP Rest of Career OBP
2013 SS Starlin Castro .323 .284
2009 SS J.J. Hardy .343 .302 .302
2006 SS Bobby Crosby .346 .298 .291
2006 SS Juan Uribe .301 .257 .301
2005 SS Khalil Greene .349 .296 .289
2004 SS Alex Cintron .359 .301 .297
2002 SS Cristian Guzman .337 .292 .313
2000 SS Alex Gonzalez .308 .229 .294
1997 SS Rey Ordonez .289 .255 .295
1994 SS Royce Clayton .331 .295 .314
1991 2B Billy Ripken .342 .253 .291
1984 SS Alfredo Griffin .289 .248 .288
1984 SS Rafael Ramirez .337 .295 .285
1982 SS Garry Templeton .315 .279 .293
1981 2B John Castino .336 .301 .335
1980 SS Johnnie LeMaster .304 .257 .282
1980 2B Rob Wilfong .352 .308 .281
1979 SS Craig Reynolds .336 .292 .285
1979 SS Ozzie Smith .311 .260 .345
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Adapted from data at

To explain, J.J. Hardy had an OBP of .343 in 2008, .302 in 2009 and .302 since then (rest of career). This sample doesn’t bode well for Castro in that these players suggest the higher OBP was the outlier. Baseball Prospectus has similar thoughts:

A comfortable Castro is capable of batting .300 with adequate (if occasionally unfocused) shortstop defense, few walks and above-average power for his position. That’s a tremendously valuable player, even if his low on-base percentage keeps him from being a table-setter.

Whether these players are true comparables for Castro is a legitimate question. Clearly the Cubs didn’t think so or they wouldn’t have signed him to the long-term contract, but Castro is reaching the stage of his career when questions are supposed to be answered, and hopefully in a positive manner. Bill James wrote in his New Historical Baseball Abstract (p. 473) that, “Major League Baseball is exactly the same game as minor league baseball, except that it has more good players. If a man hits in the minors, he will hit in the majors. Always.” Castro clearly demonstrated the ability to hit when he first came up. Pitchers haven’t really changed their approach to him as pitch data at FanGraphs shows.

This leaves two strikingly different outcomes. The first is that 2013 was a fluke that can be corrected witha new manager, attitude and approach. The second is that 2013 was a sign of what’s to come, a player with a contract higher than his worth. FanGraphs has a metric showing the dollar value a player delivered in a given season, and Castro was doing very well prior to 2013, and if he returns to that form he’ll be a bargain. With all the expectations the Cubs have built for the future (and I believe them), the real Starlin Castro has to be identified — is he the hot prospect who performed or the one that didn’t pan out? 2014 should be the year in which the questions are answered–it’s whether they’ll be answered positively or negatively that’s still in flux.

Fairly or not, Castro and Rizzo have been put forward as the face of the new Cubs, a team preparing to return to respectability in 2015. They’ll both be under intense scrutiny this year and over-analyzed, but as 2015 approaches, the plans of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer need to begin bearing fruit. How well Castro rebounds from 2013 will go a long way to seeing if the faith shown him by the Cubs is justified.

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