What I want you to do before you read this is think back to what Starlin Castro was and meant to the Cubs franchise before the 2010 season. Remember that at the time, the Cubs had come off their third straight winning season and there was hope (misplaced, as it turned out) that they might contend again in 2010.
In 2009, Castro, who had been signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2006, split his year between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, where he hit .299/.342/.392 with three home runs and 28 stolen bases. That was enough to get him the No. 16 prospect ranking from Baseball America and No. 37 from Baseball Prospectus.
When he started the 2010 season hitting .376/.421/.569 in 26 games, again at Double-A, and the Cubs floundered with a poor 13-16 start, Jim Hendry decided to promote Castro directly from Double-A, just a bit over a month after he had turned 20 years old. He was the first Cubs rookie to play at age 20 since Carlos Zambrano in 2001 and just the 19th such Cubs rookie in the post-1961 expansion era.
And then he had a debut game for the ages, May 7, 2010. The Cubs beat the Reds 14-7; Castro homered in his first big-league at-bat and also tripled and wound up with six RBI, the RBI still a record for a player in his first major-league game.
He finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting (Buster Posey, Jason Heyward, Jaime Garcia and Gaby Sanchez finished ahead of him, in case you were wondering), and continued to hit the following year, with a 207-hit season. That's the ninth-most hits any Cub has had in a single season and the most since 1936. He made two straight All-Star teams (though, that was in part due to the every-team-has-to-have-a-rep rule) and at the end of his third year, at age 22, he had 529 total hits and a .297/.336/.425 slash line.
And then it all fell apart. Beyond fading to .245/.284/.347 in 2013, there were maddening episodes on the field. Errors were made on what should have been routine plays. It appeared at times that Castro was distracted and lost focus on plays. Dale Sveum benched him in late June when he was hitting .228/.264/.318. After sitting one game (the only one he missed that year), Castro hit .262/.305/.376 from June 26 through season's end, better but not up to his previous standards. It seemed as if he and Sveum and that year's coaching staff simply didn't get along.
The 2014 version of Castro was vastly improved. Under Rick Renteria, he hit .292/.339/.438 and might have had a closing coda pushing him over .300 except for a high-ankle sprain in early September that forced him to miss the last 23 games of the season. He made his third All-Star team and hit .329/.371/.432 after the break, perhaps hinting that he'd recovered his earlier form.
Starlin hit .325/.349/.410 in April 2015 and all seemed well. And then he went into a horrific tailspin. From May 1 until Joe Maddon finally took him out of the starting shortstop role and benched him after the game against the Giants August 6, Castro hit .213/.252/.277 in 328 at-bats. Overall he was the worst offensive player in the game at the time of his removal from the lineup.
Five days later he returned as the Cubs' starting second baseman. He played in 47 games, starting 31 of them, and hit .353/.373/.588 with six home runs in 136 at-bats -- and only 18 strikeouts. It was an incredible transformation, the Castro of Double-A promise suddenly blossoming at age 25.
In the postseason, he went 4-for-14 with a homer against the Cardinals, but didn't hit much (2-for-16) against the Mets. That's forgivable -- no Cub hit much in the NLCS. And I'm sure none of us will ever forget him clutching Francisco Cervelli's soft line drive on October 7 in Pittsburgh for the final out of the wild-card win over the Pirates.
Starlin Castro finishes his Cubs career with 991 hits -- the injury at the end of the 2014 season costing him a chance to register 1,000 hits in a Cubs uniform. That ranks 36th in Cubs history, and if you think that's not a high ranking, consider he won't turn 26 until March and that represents a bit less than six seasons' worth. Further, only 24 players in major-league history have had more than 991 hits through their age-25 season. 13 of them are in the Hall of Fame and at least one other (Ken Griffey, Jr.) will be. I'm certainly not suggesting Castro is a potential Hall of Famer, but have a look at the complete list -- there are an awful lot of good players on that list, and Castro seems destined, barring injury, to have at least a very good career.
He drove us nuts at times. He produced dazzling plays at times. He struck out ignominiously at times. He hit big home runs and had key walkoff hits at times. He was a player many of us thought would be a star for the Cubs for a very long time. He had off-field troubles that I hope are going to come to an end with his decision, written about just two days ago by Mark Gonzales of the Tribune, to move his family to the Tampa, Florida area.
Interestingly enough, that's where the Yankees train. So Castro will be able to be at home with his family through spring training, and also three times a year when the Yankees travel there to play the Rays.
I'm happy for Starlin. He gets a chance for a fresh start in New York. It's a tough place to play and there's always pressure to make the playoffs there. But I think Joe Girardi and his staff are a good group of coaches for Castro to play for, and he's reunited with Hendry, who is a special assistant to Yankees GM Brian Cashman. I hope Castro thrives with the Yankees, and I hope Adam Warren provides good pitching help for the Cubs, so that the deal helps both clubs.
Would Castro have been a better player if he'd had more time in the minor leagues? He never played Triple-A ball and had just 57 games at Double-A. We'll never know, of course, but he produced 10.3 bWAR in a bit less than six seasons, and could possibly go on to a career of 30 or more bWAR.
Thanks for all the hits, Starlin, and thanks for things like this, too:
You can't help but like a guy who's having fun like that on a baseball field. We'll miss Starlin's walkup music and the clapping along that was started by the Cubs' bullpen and dugout and spread to the entire ballpark by season's end in 2015. Good luck to you, Starlin; the Yankees aren't slated to play the Cubs again in interleague play until 2017, but perhaps we'll meet again before that... next October.