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10 Degrees: Phenoms aplenty

10 Degrees: Phenoms aplenty
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Starlin Castro

Everyone overlooked baseball's latest phenom. All the best 16-year-olds in the Dominican Republic sign around July 2, and on that day in 2006, none of the 30 MLB teams offered Starlin Castro(notes) a contract.

He was too skinny, too frail, too scrawny. Castro stood 5-foot-10 and weighed 140 pounds after a big meal. He required a dreamer.

"He was really weak, and nobody paid attention to him," said Jose Serra, the Chicago Cubs' Latin American coordinator. "Over here, you've got to project everything. Arm, velocity, body. But I saw something. Everything he had was easy action. He was natural."

One of Serra's scouting friends tipped him to Castro, and Serra drove nearly two hours across the Dominican Republic to see him. He signed the shortstop on the spot for a five-figure bonus. Less than four years later, Castro is the first player born in the 1990s to appear in the major leagues, doing so with a nonpareil debut in which he started his career with a three-run home run, added a bases-clearing triple and set a record with six RBIs in his first game.

Castro is simply the latest whose arrival comes sheathed in hype. This is the Year of the Phenom. A staggering amount of top-level talent has graduated – or soon will – to the major leagues, giving 2010 a potentially all-time rookie class. And with apologies to those here already (Ike Davis(notes), Neftali Feliz(notes), Wade Davis(notes), Brian Matusz(notes), Justin Smoak(notes)) and those soon to be (Jeremy Hellickson(notes), Pedro Alvarez(notes), Drew Storen(notes)), the list of prodigies runs so deep there was simply no room for them. And for now, it starts with …

1. Starlin Castro and his rapid ascent. In 2007, he spent the year at the Cubs' academy in the Dominican Republic. In 2008, he stayed at extended spring training and played 51 games in rookie ball. Last year, he jumped to High-A and spent some time at Double-A. And now, after destroying Double-A pitching a month after he turned 20, he will spend the rest of the year, and many more, at Wrigley Field.

"I thought he was going to be become a major leaguer, but not this soon," Serra said. "He's done more than we all expected. Just so quick."

Castro represents so much for the Cubs. He is their re-do. Corey Patterson(notes), up at 20, bombed out. Felix Pie(notes), so highly regarded, did the same. The Cubs are developmentally crippled when it comes to everyday players. Though the system has churned out the inconsistent Geovany Soto(notes) and Ryan Theriot(notes), whom Castro replaced at shortstop, the bust list turns the stomach of every Cubs fan: Pie and Patterson and Hee-Seop Choi(notes) and Brian Dopirak(notes). Lou Montanez(notes), Ryan Harvey, David Kelton, Bobby Hill and Kevin Orie. Gary Scott, Ty Griffin, Dwight Smith and, following his Rookie of the Year campaign, Jerome Walton. Twenty years' worth.

Between Tyler Colvin(notes) (slugging .608 in part-time duty) and minor leaguers Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters(notes) and Hak-Ju Lee, the Cubs are replenished with position players. It begins and ends, however, with Castro, on whom all the pressure falls, much like …

2. With Stephen Strasburg(notes)'s anointing as the greatest thing to hit Washington since Yukio Ozaki sent the city cherry trees in 1912. Granted, the guy is awesome. In his first start at Triple-A, Strasburg threw six scoreless innings, allowed one hit, struck out six and retired the remaining 12 hitters on groundballs. In six minor league starts, he sports a 1.29 ERA, and it's no fluke: He's recorded 33 strikeouts and allowed just 14 hits (and no home runs) in 28 innings.

There is nothing left to prove for Strasburg. He is the phenom of phenoms, a 21-year-old who will arrive in the major leagues with a Hall of Fame-or-bust label attached to his jersey. Strasburg will join the Washington Nationals in early June as their best pitcher and perhaps sustain their surprising start. In the meantime, at Triple-A Syracuse, he can keep on firing knee-buckling curveballs and 100-mph fastballs …

3. Like Aroldis Chapman(notes) does, though with not nearly the same command. Chapman's latest outing, with Cincinnati's Triple-A affiliate Louisville, went the same as his five previous: dominant stuff, big strikeout totals, iffy command. Until Chapman harnesses his fastball and slider, his ability to dominate as a triple-digit-throwing left-hander will remain in question.

The most troubling part about Chapman's first month in non-Cuban baseball is his inability to work deep into games. It's not just a function of the Reds keeping him on a strict pitch count; Chapman's wildness has kept him from pitching into the seventh inning in any of his starts.

He has walked 18 hitters in 31 2/3 innings, and it's the main issue keeping him from a Cincinnati rotation that needs help. Homer Bailey's(notes) ERA is 7.24, Bronson Arroyo's(notes) 6.14, Aaron Harang's(notes) 6.02 and Johnny Cueto's(notes) 5.18. Only Pittsburgh and Detroit have worse ERAs among their starters, and without …

4. Mike Leake(notes), Cincinnati's pitching staff would look even more dire. Leake isn't your standard phenom. He doesn't throw hard like Chapman and Strasburg. He's listed at 6-foot-1, though if he's 6-1, so is Dustin Pedroia(notes). His average fastball is 89 mph, positively Moyerian for a right-hander.

And yet he's 3-0 with a 3.10 ERA after becoming just the 21st player ever to jump directly from the draft to the major leagues. The peripheral numbers aren't thrilling: 28 strikeouts and 17 walks in 40 2/3 innings. And yet opponents are hitting .224 against him, a number likely to go up but still a testament of his ability to induce weak contact with his sinker.

The Reds chose Leake ahead of Chapman for their No. 5 starter job knowing they'd start his arbitration clock, a small price for the production thus far …

5. But one the Cleveland Indians weren't not willing to pay with Carlos Santana(notes). He is a switch-hitting catcher with potential plus defense. He is batting .309, reaches base nearly 45 percent of the time, has more walks than strikeouts and slugs .526. He is pretty much the perfect prospect; current catcher Lou Marson(notes) (.203/.261/.266) pretty much isn't.

And yet Santana remains parked at Triple-A Columbus because the Indians want to save money with the ludicrous Super 2 rule, which awards an extra year of arbitration to the players with the top 17 percent of service time in a particular rookie class. Stashing a player in the minor leagues until June keeps them safe, and no matter how bad it looks, it's prudent, too, particularly with the paucity of good catching …

6. That makes the case of Buster Posey(notes) all the more curious. First the San Francisco Giants test him at first base during spring training. Then they send him down to Triple-A. Then they keep him at catcher. Then they say Posey's defense isn't good enough to warrant a promotion, even if he's hitting .345 with a .994 OPS. Next comes the collapse of Giants message boards, so strained with apoplexy over the mishandling of Posey that sufficient bandwidth to handle it simply doesn't exist.

Point is, he's good. He's really good. He may be the best everyday prospect in the minors …

7. Not named Mike Stanton(notes). It is almost the middle of May, and Stanton is slugging .854 for Florida's Double-A affiliate, Jacksonville. He hit another home run Monday. It was his 15th in 103 at-bats. His previous one traveled an estimated 500 feet. He is 20, by the way.

And if we may hazard a guess: By the end of the season, the longest home run in the major leagues will belong to the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Stanton, surpassing …

8. The 476-foot shot Jason Heyward(notes) hit on opening day. Heyward is the current phenom standard bearer, splashed across the pages of Sports Illustrated, in nightly highlight reels and on National League leaderboards. His .616 slugging ranks fifth in the NL, his 26 RBIs ninth, his .410 OBP 10th. He is 20, too, and never has he looked it. Heyward is off to the best offensive debut since Ryan Braun.

And that's with him missing the last five games because of an injured right groin. Heyward expects to return Tuesday night, a welcome sign for the Braves, whose record without him would be positively frightening, a similar situation …

9. To life in Detroit without the American League's second-highest batting average, belonging to rookie Austin Jackson(notes). Now, of all the players on this list, Jackson is the least likely to maintain his baseball savoir faire; he is likely to be a BABIP casualty.

BABIP is short for batting average on balls in play. Balls put in play – everything but strikeouts and home runs – fall for hits about 30 percent of the time. Jackson's BABIP was over .500 until an 0-for-4 game Monday. High BABIPs indicate significant luck, and Jackson's prohibitive strikeout total – 39 in 136 at-bats – portends trouble.

Still, he's a 23-year-old center fielder who covers significant ground and will be paid around the minimum salary for the next three seasons. Such assets are indispensable, and that he's playing better than the man he replaced, Curtis Granderson(notes), is only gravy. Jackson plays with the dynamism …

10. That Starlin Castro showed with two flicks of the wrist in his first three at-bats. He was immediately a folk hero in Chicago, the nouveau Tuffy Rhodes, though hopefully with a much longer, more fruitful career.

And that's what everyone must remember: These players are, like Serra said of the 16-year-old Castro, little more than what we project them to be. They may seem sure things. We damn sure treat them like sure things. But they will fail, and their ultimate value as a player will be how these failures affect them.

Castro went 0-for-2 on Monday, his first hitless game. He also made three errors. It was the most highly anticipated debut at Wrigley since Mark Prior's,(notes) and it was as inauspicious as it was anticlimactic.

Which was fine. They've got plenty of time to fall back in love with him. Jose Serra did the dreaming. Now Starlin Castro, this week's phenom in a year full of them, is Chicago's to savor.