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Cubs shortstop Castro didn't just fall off the boat

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
Cubs shortstop Castro didn't just fall off the boat

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Starlin Castro was the first player born in the 1990s to break into the big leagues

CHICAGO – There are going to be nights when the world turns upside down and the pressure squeezes like a tourniquet and an entire stadium of people trains its stink-eye on you. And it's in these very moments that Starlin Castro(notes) breathes deep and reminds himself he could be on a boat.

It's where Diogenes Castro spent decades working long hours for meager pay as a fisherman off the coast of Monte Cristi, the Dominican Republic town where he raised Starlin and four other children. They lived off the Autopista Duarte in a neighborhood called Las Flores. Starlin said there aren't many flowers these days.

Even though Diogenes couldn't afford a glove for Starlin, he yearned for him to be a baseball player. Diogenes had been one, long before hundreds of scouts combed the D.R. and sent the next great things to lavish academies, but no one found him, so he went to the boat. He tried to connect to baseball in other ways; the name Starlin is an homage to Stan Javier, the Dominican outfielder.

Turns out the kid is better than his namesake, a hitting savant and future batting champion, the first child of the '90s to play in the major leagues and still, nearly a year after his debut as the Chicago Cubs shortstop, the youngest in them at 21. Which makes him prone to a night like Monday, to crowds like Wrigley Field that accept one error, groan at a second and cringe at a third, especially when they come in one inning.

He's still learning. He's still growing. He's still doing what his father instilled in him: trying to stay off that damn boat.

Diogenes Castro took Starlin out fishing. He wanted his son to see what he needed to avoid. The mackerel and grouper and marlin and sailfish put food on the table. They also wore down Diogenes' will.

"This life was not good," Castro said. "I go with him a couple times. I see what it's like. When I sign, I said to him: You take it easy now. I'll take care of you."

For Castro, the $60,000 offered by the Cubs amounted to a lottery jackpot. It was a pittance compared to the millions teams throw around at projectable players with higher-profile buscones. Castro was more a flier for Jose Serra, the point man who has fed the organization a tremendous number of impact players for the relatively small amount of money it spends in Latin America.

Almost immediately, the Cubs understood their bargain. Castro's fluidity in the middle infield was one thing. His swing – its speed and its ability to stay through the strike zone and the way it sprayed balls like buckshot – turned him into a priority. At 18, Castro made it to the Arizona Rookie League. A year later, he had reached Double-A. And a month past his 20th birthday, he hit a three-run home run in his first major league at-bat last May 7, a bases-clearing triple later in the game and became the first player ever to drive in six runs in his major league debut.

Castro finished last season hitting .300, just the 20th player to do so in his age-20 season. He returned this spring, in the words of Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw(notes), "a completely different hitter." He was bigger, for one; listed at 6-foot, 190 pounds, Castro is closer to 6-foot-2 and 205 these days. Never a hacker, either, his ability to make contact nonetheless had morphed from an advantage into a weapon.

He boasts the third-lowest strikeout rate in the major leagues at 5.4 percent, behind only A.J. Pierzynski(notes) and the notoriously tough-to-K Placido Polanco(notes). Only eight players make more contact than Castro, and among that group, Castro swings at by far the most pitches.

"I don't know if it's a combination of hand-eye coordination and the bat speed," Cubs manager Mike Quade said. "The other thing that's amazing about it to me is, guys like him that do all that foul a lot of balls off that are out of the strike zone or balls that lesser hitters put in play when all you do is want to stay alive with a foul ball. I don't think it's something you teach. It's part of a swing and who you are."

There is no method, Castro said, nothing more than the simple edict so many hitters preach but few practice in earnest: "See the ball, hit the ball. Especially when I have two strikes. I always want to put the ball in play. Put it in play and something happens. It's easy to say. Not easy to do."

Eagerness does get the best of him. Among the 187 qualified hitters, Castro ranks 163rd in walk rate. The old debate over plate discipline will find an interesting test subject in Castro, whose bat is so good so quick that its success could ultimately mitigate his ability to get on base at a higher clip.

“He really has a good eye," Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo said. "He just makes his mind up to swing sometimes. I'd rather him put the ball in play than walk. I'm talking in the strike zone. If it's there, he's usually going to hit the ball hard."

Castro's .357 batting average stands sixth in the National League, buoyed by three two-hit games, five three-hit showings and a pair of four-hit bonanzas. For a Cubs team dabbling in mediocrity, the future – even one with nearly four more years of Alfonso Soriano(notes) at $72 million – can't be that bad when the scariest hitter in the lineup is the one with the baby face.

Jim Tracy peered at his desk Monday night and shook his head. The Colorado Rockies' manager plays incredulous well, though he wasn't feigning surprise at the sheet of paper in front of him that put Castro in the most important spot in the Cubs' batting order.

"I've got a lineup card here today, and what's the statement they're making?" Tracy said. "They're hitting him third. That's a pretty important spot in your order offensively in the National League. It speaks volumes."

So does the way pitchers are now approaching Castro: backward, they call it, throwing breaking balls early in the count and mixing in fastballs later, hoping something can throw off his timing.

And the way Chicagoans now refer to him by only one name – and what a perfect mononym Starlin is – and want more of his time. He is the future of the Cubs, after all, even if the power never develops, even if, as scouts already are predicting, that future is a few steps over at third base. As they rebuild under new ownership, and perhaps a new front office, he will be their constant: premium player, premium position.

"We didn't expect [Castro to be] that good right now," Quade said. "I just want to see it continue. The offensive part of his game has become so good and is so advanced at this point. He's running the bases better. The defensive stuff continues to be something he needs to work on."

He's getting there. No less than Troy Tulowitzki(notes), the best fielding shortstop in baseball, considers himself a fan of Castro's. Tulowitzki appreciates his baseball IQ: the care with which he grinds out at-bats and his positioning on defense. Only the mental lapses stop him from joining Tulo among the best shortstops in baseball.

They'll subside. They have to. Castro wants to keep playing shortstop, and he understands that will take work. He spent hours living the Dominican stereotype – a kid bouncing a ball off the wall with a milk carton for a glove – so he could do this for his family.

In May, Diogenes and the rest of them will join Castro in Chicago. He lived with Soriano last season but has ventured on his own now, ready for this wonderful life he built himself far from that boat.

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