2012 Cubs recap: Shortstop

Doug Padilla reviews the Cubs by position this week. Today he focuses on shortstop.

CHICAGO -- Starlin Castro got off to a hot start in 2012, got in a little over his head for a stretch and then got paid, officially cementing himself as one of the players the Chicago Cubs are committed to building around.

The Cubs shortstop showed the human element involved with even the most talented of players. Nobody has questioned the raw ability of Castro, especially when it comes to what he is able to do at the plate. But the 22-year-old showed that he is not immune to the mental challenges that come with playing the game.

His ability to focus every game and on every pitch still is not at the level the Cubs would prefer. High-profile mental gaffes continued to show up, most notably when he forgot how many outs there were in an early-season game and then when he tried an ill-advised base-running maneuver later in the season.

He was far from the only one to lose track of the situation or make poor decisions on the field this year, but the Cubs know that it is one of the few weaknesses of his game and is an easier fix than turning somebody into a high-level hitter or fielder.

There were other focus issues this season, though, that weren’t entirely Castro’s fault. As the Cubs engaged Castro’s agent in contract-extension talks, Castro’s play suffered, especially when it came to his offense.

Castro was still batting .300 in June when contract negotiations reportedly began to take place, but by Aug. 7 his average dipped to .272. He entered the season as a career .304 hitter in the major leagues after hitting .310 in the minor leagues.

When Castro’s seven-year, $60 million extension was finalized Aug. 28, he was batting a slightly improved .276. But from that date until the end of the season , he batted .309 with an .839 OPS, while recording 10 of his 36 walks on the season.

Those 10 walks show evidence of Castro’s latest advancement. After hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo was fired in June, the Cubs tried to instill a more patient approach at the plate, something that Castro had not been adept at using.

That change in approach also was blamed for Castro’s midseason slide, along with the distraction of the contract talks.

Moving forward, the Cubs hope to have a more complete hitter, who can deliver at the plate while also working opponents’ pitch counts from possibly the No. 2 spot in the order, a lineup position he hasn’t been able to fully wrap his arms around.

Curiously, though, Castro showed he might be ready to move back to the top of the order by having late-season success in the No. 5 spot behind Alfonso Soriano.

Defensively, Castro continues to show improvement while still flashing range that ranks among the best young shortstops in the game. His work around the second-base bag has also improved, buoyed by an even better partnership with double-play partner Darwin Barney.

Next on the agenda for improving Castro’s defense is to get him to field in the balls of his feet rather than his heels to get him moving forward on his throws to first base rather than remaining at the back cut of the infield and relying too much on his arm.

The Cubs are confident the adjustments can be made and Castro’s full potential can be met. A seven-year contract extension shows just how confident the club is of that happening.

WEDNESDAY: Left field.