COMMENTARY | It's never been a question of whether Starlin Castro has the physical tools to become one of the premier shortstops in baseball. Instead, it's his undeveloped mental game that brings forth hesitation whether Castro can achieve such an elite status with the Chicago Cubs.
It wasn't enough to scare the Cubs from offering Castro a lengthy 7-year, $60-million contract extension in August, which Castro gladly accepted.
Now it's up to Castro to understand accepting the Cubs' offer essentially signs away any and all excuses for his proneness for in-game mental lapses, which have been prevalent over the past 2 1/2 seasons but often pardoned by fans and the organization because of his youth, inexperience and natural talent.
That will no longer be the case with Castro officially becoming a franchise player financially. He'll be expected to burden the elevated and occasionally unrealistic expectations that come with signing a long-term deal. Being mentally invested is no exception.
-New Contract Brings New Reality for Castro
This new reality for Castro presents a tall order for a kid who's run the gamut of embarrassing mental mistakes throughout his short big league career.
Castro's guilty of everything from inexplicably having his back turned to the plate during the delivery of a pitch, to countless base-running blunders, to forgetting how many outs there were in the inning, just to name a few.
The Cubs obviously believe Castro's mental makeup is capable of maturing to the expectations of his new deal. But it's going to require some fast growing up on Castro's end to prove the Cubs' front office right.
Starlin turns 23 years old in March. He's still a young man, even by baseball standards. Expecting Castro to keep his head in the game for nine innings, however, isn't too much to ask. That's part of being a professional and unquestionably comes with signing a big-boy contract.
-Castro's Mental Focus Needs to Be All Encompassing
The magnitude of Castro's lack of mental preparedness extends well beyond the awkwardness of his more memorable boneheaded plays. It entails, at least partly, his excessive 27 fielding miscues last season, an insufficient base-running acumen and a disappointing 65-percent success rate in stolen bases in 2012.
Additionally, the Cubs are already challenging Castro, as they are the rest of their hitters, to stick with the organization's recently implemented grind-it-out plate approach--a tactic the front office believes will help raise the team's on-base percentage and increase run production (the Cubs finished 28/30 in runs scored last season).
It's quite the contrast for Castro, who's made a name for himself as a notorious swing-early, swing-often type batter, albeit with excellent results, including two National League All-Star appearances and his NL league-leading 207 hits in 2011.
However, this particular change to a new hitting approach, which began in June following the dismissal of former Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, has yet to deliver the individual results the Cubs are seeking from Castro.
In fact, Castro has never slumped so badly during any point in his career the way he did through the second half of last season (.275/.332/.440).
Castro entered the 2012 campaign with an impressive .304 career batting average, but finished 21 points below that mark. His on-base percentage slipped 18 points from the season prior, and he drew just 36 walks in 646 at-bats last season.
While it's fair to expect a learning curve, mastering mental plate discipline is never a small challenge for a hitter, let alone one who struggles with his overall mental focus.
-What Happens if Starlin's Mental Approach Doesn't Improve?
The areas of Castro's game I've mentioned merely highlight why the comprehensive growth of his cerebral game will remain a chief concern of the Cubs until he proves otherwise, but make no mistake that the clock's ticking.
If Castro's ability to stay focused isn't improved upon in 2013 it's unlikely he'll be viewed as a core piece of the Cubs' rebuild, or be seen as eventually living up to the expectations of his lofty contract.
Under such circumstances the Cubs would inevitably have to come to terms with trading Castro to a team more lenient with the development of his mental side.
Even Chicago's longer-range rebuilding plans can't wait for everybody, and Castro will only lose trade value with age, which means the Cubs can't afford to wait three or four more seasons to decide if Castro will ever grow up above the neck.
The Cubs took a calculated risk extending Castro with the hope his physical game has simply matured sooner than his mental one--not so unusual for a male in his early-20s. But when you're being paid the money Castro is, the grace period for mental miscues is quickly eliminated once you've signed the dotted line.
That leaves it to Castro to step up his mental focus, and in a hurry, too. Otherwise, it's not unreasonable to think Cubs fans could be left watching Castro grow up somewhere other than Chicago.
Brian Corbin is a Chicago-based sports blogger and passionate Chicago Cubs fan. He's covered the Cubs year-round since 2007 on his blog BullpenBrian.com. His posts have been published on the Chicago Sun-Times News Group web sites and numerous baseball blogs.
You can follow Brian on Twitter @bullpenbrian.