MESA, Ariz. -- Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro arrived at spring training on Wednesday in what he says is the best shape of his career after spending a month with a strength coach and hitting in the batting cages more than ever.
He's trying to put his career-worst 2013 season -- in which he batted just .243 with a .284 on-base percentage -- behind him.
"I feel really strong," Castro said before the first day of full squad workouts. "I worked really hard to prepare for this year. It's a really important year for me."
After getting in shape in his native Dominican Republic, Castro went to Bradenton, Fla., to hit at the IMG Academy. He watched video of his swing and then took a lot of batting practice.
"I watched everything," said Castro, who entered last season a career .297 hitter. "I try to figure out what happened last year."
Castro didn't reveal specifics but observers say he was caught "in between" trying to be more patient and trying to drive the ball where it was pitched. Scouts knew something was wrong when Castro would allow formerly hittable fastballs go right by him. He was the face of a losing team in 2013 as his defense suffered early in the season while his offense eventually landed him in the eighth spot in the lineup for a day in early August.
After batting a season-worst .218 in the month of August, Castro righted the ship a bit with a .259 September, giving hope for a carry-over. But the pressure is on.
"We want him to improve his approaches in many facets of the game," manager Rick Renteria said on Tuesday.
Castro, who enters the second year of a seven-year, $60 million contract, gets a clean slate with his new manager. Renteria actually came to his defense after seeing a mental mistake from last season when Castro allowed a runner to score from third on a pop up behind short.
"Many players have done that over the course of their careers yet this is the biggest thing that's happened in the game of baseball," Renteria said. "It happens to the best of them. We just don't want it to happen as often. When you talk to all those guys they laugh about it now but unfortunately for this young man everyone decided this was the one to pick on. He was the one to make a big emphasis about what just occurred."
Of course, the reason Castro gets "picked" on is because of the pattern of mistakes as well as his overall regression. For now, he gets the backing of his manager.
"Every time that I talk to him he talks about positive things," Castro said.
But that doesn't mean Castro is going to get a free pass.
"It's incumbent on me now, if this has been a pattern, how am I going to take the next phase?," Renteria said.
If the hard work Castro put in this offseason pays off, then Renteria may not have anything to worry about and the Cubs can breathe a huge sigh of relief. A return to form for the two-time All-Star puts part of the team rebuilding process back on track. He and Anthony Rizzo are being counted on to lead the way now that veterans such as Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus are gone.
"I'm one of the old guys in here," Castro said. "Me and Rizzo."
He was quick to point out he and Rizzo are old in a locker room now housing many of Cubs prospects from the minor leagues. But Castro is only 24 and could still have the prime of his career to look forward to. This season might be the telltale sign. He knows what he's up against.
"It's big," he said. "The expectations are pretty big."