CHICAGO -- The new Chicago Cubs front office might be in the midst of a house cleaning, but they quickly identified an asset worth keeping.
It wasn’t long into the season when president of baseball operations Theo Epstein went on the record saying that while Starlin Castro’s baseball acumen was well known, watching it on an everyday basis was a sight to behold.
It was not to say Castro was the perfect player then, nor is he now, but he is plenty good to build a ballclub around as his new seven-year, $60 million extension finalized Tuesday shows.
“Shortstop's a really hard position to fill in today's game especially someone that can provide with offense,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He proved it to us early on. He worked very hard on his defense. There's no question in my mind that he can play shortstop in the big leagues on a championship team.”
It will take time, of course. Not only is the roster in flux, but Castro still isn’t the finished product. His recent adjustment to a new hitting coach and revamped approach at the plate led to recent struggles he never has experienced in his three seasons in the major leagues.
While Castro’s raw talent is unmatched, the coaching staff is providing him tools to further maximize his potential.
Then there are the mental lapses that have appeared on multiple occasions, like losing track of the number of outs in an early May game at San Francisco and the unnecessary risk and base running blunder during a game earlier this month against the Reds.
At 22, though, the Cubs are more than willing to accept that their young and wildly talented shortstop has flaws. Making them even more confident of a bright future is that those flaws are fixable.
“I think people forget how young this guy is,” Epstein said earlier this month. “He’s at an age where he would be appropriate, or even young for his level, if he was at Double-A right now. I think we all know what kind of numbers he would put up if he was at Double-A right now. He’s continuing to mature at a young age at the big-league level.”
Castro’s maturation is what the Cubs need most. His youth has been most evident over the last month as the understandable distraction of contract negotiations dragged on. That, combined with the Cubs’ mandate of more patient at-bats has taken an obvious toll.
“A little bit, (but) not too much (of a distraction),” Castro admitted Tuesday about the contract talks. “That's what I told my agent, ‘When they start talking to don't let me know. When you are close, let me know when you'll be ready because I want to take pressure off myself.’”
Now that the distractions are done and the contract is finalized, there are two ways Castro can go from here. Does he become the guy content with his riches and begins to coast on occasion? Or, does the wealth eliminate one worry from his life so that he is free to concentrate solely on reaching that potential the Cubs see in him?
Obviously, the Cubs believe it’s the latter.
“I think it can be, not specific to Starlin, in general it can be a big relief to players to go out and play and not worry about an arbitration year or platform year knowing they will be part of the leadership of a club for a long time,” Epstein said. “It can relax them and it can also reinforce the importance of stepping up with some leadership qualities, being the player you want others to look up to and be a role model.
“I also think it can help a player to take a deep breath and let his abilities take over. If you end up negotiating during a season that can be tough on a player and when something gets done they usually take a deep breath and perform.”
The distractions seemed to follow Castro right up to the final day before Tuesday’s deal was finalized. Castro made both a fielding error and a throwing error Monday night and while showing dazzling athletic ability, he seemed to lack the focus needed to make the plays he attempted.
And while one problem is sometimes solved, another often emerges. Guys with financial security often get moved under a higher powered microscope. It probably won’t be the same microscope Alfonso Soriano was put under after his $136-million deal, but the stakes will be raised and Castro’s reaction will be judged.
“At 22-years old to get that kind of money is a lot to handle sometimes,” manager Dale Sveum said. “I think for the most part, when you get that first contract, you can relax and understand there’s only one thing to play for and that’s winning the World Series and playing and working as hard as you can for the team that gave you that kind of money to be here for a long time.”
Where does he go from here? The first guess is to the bank to make a large deposit. After that Castro would like some jewelry, but not the kind you buy, the kind that is handed out by your team’s owner.
“It’s the only important thing right now to win a World Series and for it to be here,” he said.