Starlin Castro proved '13 season was fluke

CHICAGO -- Even if he doesn't play another game this season, Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro has already proved again he's a near-elite player at his position.

Castro, who has a high ankle sprain but might not be finished for 2014, rebounded from a disastrous 2013 to make his third All-Star Game. More important, he may have won back a skeptical fan base.

"We give him a lot of credit because he's had to take it on, and it's been his responsibility to change the way people view him," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said Wednesday. "I think he's done a really nice job."

Castro, 24, tied his career high in home runs with 14. His .292 batting average is nearly 50 points higher than last season, and the pressure of batting cleanup was never an issue for him. He batted .328 with runners on base and .286 with runners in scoring position. He did his job.

"He didn't start off the way anybody would have wanted him to start off," Renteria said. "He kept working and grinding. His defense started to get better and his offense continued to take off. He worked himself back into an All-Star role again."

After getting into the best shape of his career over the winter, Castro injured a hamstring early in spring training. He missed most of the Cactus League but made sure he was ready for Opening Day. But was he? He went hitless in his first nine at-bats, then was 1-for-13 and 2-for-17. He just didn't look comfortable at the plate. It was at this point you had to wonder if his previous bad year combined with his spring injury was going to get the best of him. Would we look back at 2014 and realize Castro's year was derailed when he pulled that hamstring in Game 2 of spring training? He answered that quickly, going 7-for-his-next-12, and never looked back.

"In my mind's eye, he's had a very productive season," Renteria said. "He's dealt with a lot of different things very positively. He's worked extremely hard."

It sounded like a cliché late last season when Castro showed some signs of life and declared that he was getting back to "being myself." The Cubs famously tried to get more power and plate discipline out of him, and it didn't work. At least not on their timetable. Being himself has translated into numbers this season that are nearly identical to his numbers before the 2013 season, when he slumped to .245 with a .284 on-base percentage along with 10 home runs and 44 RBIs.

"He relaxed and was comfortable with who he is and where he's at on the team," his agent Paul Kinzer said. "He communicates well with Renteria. He's growing.

"He had fun again. That's an important thing for those guys. They enjoy coming to the ballpark every day."

Castro is as happy-go-lucky as they come -- and that attitude helps his game. It wasn't the case late in 2013, especially on the day former manager Dale Sveum batted him eighth for the first time that season.

"I don't like it there," Castro said with a scowl at the time. "He asked me if I like it, I told him no."

But that's all in the past now. Castro's numbers have rebounded.

His strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.86) is in line with his production from 2010 to '12 as his overall walks and strikeouts have both gone up. But where he's surpassed his old self is with his power. Maybe he saw better pitches batting behind Anthony Rizzo or maybe he felt the inherent need in the cleanup spot, but his home run percentage is a career-high 2.5 percent this season.

Same goes for his overall ability to drive the ball for extra-base hits. He squared more balls up this season, as his line-drive percentage went from 18.6 percent in 2013 to 25.6 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And where he was indecisive last season, often letting hittable fastballs go by, he's hit .339 off them in 2014. That's been the key to his resurgence.

The irony is it all happened on Castro's timetable, not the Cubs'. It's something team president Theo Epstein forecast nearly a year ago.

"Starlin is somebody we just want to be himself," Epstein said on Sept. 19, 2013. "He's a pretty unique hitter. I think we made efforts to introduce him to the concept of getting pitches he can really drive, because in the long run that will benefit him. But if that can't be accomplished without him being himself as a hitter, then you just have to let time play its course and he'll naturally evolve that way."

Castro has done just that. And defensively, it's been a very good year for him as well. Errors never tell the whole story about a fielder, but in Castro's case, there's meaning. He committed a career-low 15 this season with a career-high .973 fielding percentage.

In the past, Castro had a tendency to make errors on the routine plays, sometimes from mental lapses. There were rushed throws on slow runners and too much time taken on the fast ones. That led to miscues. Many of those lapses were eliminated this season. No one is perfect -- Castro stared at a ball to the wall recently and didn't make second base -- but those kinds of mental breakdowns used to be the norm, now they're becoming the exception. And he's only 24 years old.

That brings us to the trade rumors. The moment the Cubs acquired Addison Russell from the Oakland Athletics in July, media-driven talk of moving Castro popped up. There's little doubt the Cubs have a surplus of middle infielders and one could be moved for some pitching.

"He's our shortstop," general manager Jed Hoyer said Wednesday. "And there's a reason why we have Javy [Baez] playing second base right now."

That's for now, of course. Things can change this offseason or beyond. No one can handicap whether Castro will be the Cubs' shortstop next season because no one knows the offers they might get. The point is, no longer are they possibly trying to "dump" Castro -- a thought from a year ago. He's a major asset. If the right deal comes along, the Cubs should make the move because they do have that surplus and Castro isn't untradable.

But he is a three-time All-Star who has proved everything that Russell and Baez have yet to, so the deal has to be right. The Cubs know that. And if they move Castro, they can thank him for returning to All-Star form and netting them a big return. He's had a very good year at the toughest position in baseball.

"All in all, this year has been extremely positive," Renteria said.