It didn’t happen the way anyone would have imagined it, but Starlin Castro has become a role player for the Chicago Cubs. Since at least the start of the season, I’ve been saying this was the dream scenario. Not for Castro to be semi-demoted, but for him to no longer be viewed as a load-bearing member of the team. So much of the criticism of the shortstop’s play was born of expectations, not to mention a dearth of additional talent around him.
When Castro is one of your team’s highest-paid players and is expected to be a cornerstone for a nascent powerhouse, it’s necessarily going to draw some vitriol. But when he’s batting deep in the lineup and is no longer viewed as one of the top 6 or 7 overall talents on the roster, well, that’s something to be pretty darn happy about. Since being moved over to second base and out of the everyday lineup, Castro seems to have rediscovered the form that earned him three All-Star nods (2011, ’12, ’14) and helped him lead the NL in hits in his first full season (2011).
Everyone benefits from this new role, including Castro himself. The most obvious results have been in the stats, where a slash line of .236/.271/.304 with a wRC+ of 52 in 104 games prior to the shift became .371/.380/.586 with a 164 wRC+ in 27 games since. He’s hitting the ball harder and striking out half as much, perhaps due to a more aggressive approach. The 1.4% walk rate would seem to bear that out. But metrics alone are not the measure of a man; below is a look at just how the various parties involved can feel good about
Not only do those pulling for the Cubs get the benefit of better production, but they don’t have the added burden of worrying about when Addison Russell will eventually ascend to the throne. They can also stop worrying about how the Cubs will be able to play three shortstops at the same time. And for those who tend to maintain a level head about such things, a reduction in Castro’s playing time and an increase in his output means a sharp drop in hot takes.
No longer shackled by the idea that Castro is his starting SS, Maddon can mix his various middle infield ingredients like a medieval alchemist. Russell is the only sure thing, but Castro and Javier Baez can now rotate around as starters at 2B (and 3B as well for Baez) or be deployed as defensive replacements/pinch hitters. He ripped the band-aid off when it came to making a change, so everything is easier from this point forward.
Prior to Castro’s demotion, he was a man adrift. Not enough value to the team to remain an everyday starter and not productive enough to be more than a throw-in when it came to a big trade. Now, however, the tables have turned. This move, along with the — fingers crossed — promotion of Baez — makes Castro both more expendable and more desirable. The Cubs are in a no-lose situation at this point, as they should be just fine whether they trade him or keep him.
The most important figure here is the man in the the middle of it. By respecting his manager’s decision and showing no public displeasure for the move, Castro actually improved his standing in the eyes of the general public. His play on the field has taken that to another level, as he’s actually become quite a bit more of a sympathetic figure. And while he may prefer to remain in Chicago, his resurgence virtually guarantees him a starting job somewhere else should the Cubs choose to move him.
When you get down to it, this really is the best possible scenario for everyone involved. Castro lost his spot due to his poor play, but has since earned himself more playing time. Joe Maddon has established a meritocracy, the necessity for which was generated by a massive influx of talent. No longer is this a team for which the incumbent will maintain his role so long as his pulse can still be measured. In that, Castro is the archetype for what we’d all hoped the Cubs would eventually become.
It’s not just next man up, it’s best man up. Starlin Castro is not even in the conversation of the Cubs’ best player, but if he’s able to maintain something even close to the production he’s put out since being benched, well…