There's no way to sugarcoat it: Starlin Castro has become radioactive. The former All-Star shortstop has depressingly turned in arguably the worst season in the Major Leagues this year at a time when the Cubs so desperately need his steady, consistent bat in the everyday lineup.
So it's time for an open, simple request. Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, etc.: please send Starlin to the bench, at least for a couple of weeks, while the Cubs enter their most important stretch of baseball in years.
I don't intend this to be an impassioned plea. Like so many other Cubs fans, I wish Castro were producing at something close to his career average this season, producing the overall value of a non-elite but nevertheless valuable regular. That player would be extremely valuable for the 2015 Cubs.
Alas, he's simply not here this year. So it's time to appreciate the Cubs' reality: Starlin is causing too much harm to this club at too important of a time to keep him in the lineup. Let's try something different.
The Case for Removal
The majority of BCB commenters approach Castro in something like this way: we get it, he's bad this year but he's not differently bad now than he was in May, so let's not waste our time talking about him.
Personally, I think every action of every player in every game should be on the table when discussing the team, but I'm sympathetic to those who don't want to talk about Castro using the rationale described above. I really am. It's just not fun to beat a dead horse.
Unfortunately, 2015 Castro isn't a dead horse. He may have been a dead horse a couple of months ago, but at this point, he's more like an infected dead horse who runs the risk of infecting other members of the stable.
For those of you who are familiar with the statistic wRC+, you can skip this paragraph. For those of you who aren't, you can go here to read the full Fangraphs description of the number. In short, wRC+ is a rate statistic scaled to 100 with each point above or below 100 representing one percentage point better or worse than league average offensive production.
To offer some quick calibration, only a dozen or so hitters surpass the 150 mark in a given season. Currently, 11 players have surpassed that threshold this year with names like Harper, Trout, Cabrera, Goldschmidt, and yes, Rizzo, in that lofty territory. The Cubs feature six players at 100 or better in Kyle Schwarber (170), Rizzo (153), Kris Bryant (120), Chris Coghlan (108), Miguel Montero (101), and Dexter Fowler (100). Some players have disappointed to an extent including Jorge Soler (88), Addison Russell (85), and Chris Denorfia (83). Looking at wRC+, Bryant has been 20% better than league average as a rookie -- a genuinely impressive feat -- while Soler has been 12% worse. For their careers, Sammy Sosa (124), Mark Grace (120), and Ron Santo (126) all produced results that confirm what we already knew: they were really good hitters. If you're wondering how Santo possibly has a higher wRC+ than Sosa, the statistic is adjusted to consider era and park factors.
With our basic understanding of wRC+ under our belt, we turn to Castro. It's well known that Starlin's calling card is his bat, and wRC+ tells us that he's hit well for his career. From 2010-14, Starlin's wRC+ totaled 98, just a hair below an average Major League hitter. Among 29 shortstops with at least 1,500 plate appearances from 2010-14, Castro's wRC+ ranked ninth, trailing only Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Jhonny Peralta, Jed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera, Ian Desmond, and Marco Scutaro, and ahead of thel ikes of Derek Jeter, Jimmy Rollins, J.J. Hardy, and Yunel Escobar. Castro was in fine company.
We all know that the wheels have come off in 2015, but part of my purpose in writing an article specifically about this is to point out that Castro hasn't just struggled in 2015: he's completely fallen apart in the last month and a half.
On the strength of a lofty .368 BABIP in April, Castro put together a 108 wRC+, riding a flurry of singles to a hot start. That's not a knock on him in the slightest: hitting singles is what Castro does best and he did it very well in April., even if he drew barely any walks and hit for only the tiniest amount of power.
The BABIP slumped mightily in May to .270 and the wRC+ cratered with it to 42. For the sake of comparison, Koyie Hill had a career wRC+ of 40 (and 41 as a Cub). Castro was brutal in May as power remained conspicuously absent and he continued drawing few walks as his strikeout rate jumped in a troubling way. Still, on the heels of his hot April, it was easy to write this off as a prolonged slump.
He "rebounded" only slightly in June posting a wRC+ of 71 with a .245/.284/.343 batting line. But that doesn't quite capture what actually happened. Castro had a legitimate rebound over the first three weeks of the month, pumping out a .288/.321/.411 line for a perfectly average wRC+ of 100. Although he continued to hit far too many ground balls and not nearly enough line drives, Castro hit well for weeks and even produced power at roughly his career norm.
But then the wheels fell off again when the Dodgers came to town, and Castro hasn't found them again. Over the last eight games in June, Castro drew two walks and hit four singles, good for a wRC+ of -2 from his .138/.194/.172 line. Rather incredibly, his July was nearly identical with a .170/.194/.202 line that also produced a wRC+ of -2, including a strikeout rate of 21.4% and a walk rate of 3.1%, both of which would be full-season worsts. His ISO of .032 defies explanation.
From June 22 through August 2, Castro produced a .162/.197/.192 line for a wRC+ of -3 over 137 plate appearances.
I'm going to offer a series of comparisons. I don't throw these out there to bash Castro; nobody needs any more of that. I present these to convey the true depth of his struggles at this point. Understanding the extent of such struggles is important.
Over the past month and a half, Castro has been closer to Jon Lester (career wRC+ of -95) than he has been to an average hitter.
Another comparison: a player going 0-for-3 with a walk and a strikeout produces a wRC+ of -2.
The gap between Castro's last 40 or so games and an average hitter (103 points) is the same gap between the career wRC+ totals of Augie Ojeda and Mike Trout. It's the same gap as between Rey Ordonez and Mark McGwire (or Albert Pujols).
The gap between Castro's last 40 games and an average hitter is just a hair larger than the gap between Tom Glavine's career and Sammy Sosa's.
One final comparison: the gap between Castro's last 40 games and Carlos Zambrano's career line (60 points) is the same gap as between Zambrano and the career lines of Andre Dawson and Carlton Fisk.
Castro's defense has remained consistently solid, if a bit below average, and that's a meaningful reason for hope.
But his bat has made him unplayable for a team in the thick of a playoff chase. It's just time for him to get some time off.
Deciding to remove Castro is only half of the equation, however. There has to be someone to take his spot in the lineup.
In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote the above prior to the Iowa Cubs game on Monday, August 3. What follows came after such contest.
I fully appreciate that the alternatives are not perfect. Thankfully, Addison Russell's defensive prowess gives the Cubs the ability to find a replacement for Castro at either shortstop or second base should they heed my request and bump Castro from the everyday lineup.
Jonathan Herrera has proved to be the sub-replacement level player so many of us expected him to be, and it's likely that his production would be even worse in a full-time (or close to it) gig. He's not an enticing option.
The club's primary second baseman in April, Arismendy Alcantara has followed his explosive 2014 that saw him reach the Majors at age 22 with a very disappointing year thus far in 2015. While Alcantara has continued to hit for very good power (.196 ISO) and draw a solid number of walks, his inability to handle offspeed offerings has led to an uptick in strikeouts and a big drop in BABIP. The end result? A .296 on-base percentage at Iowa. Alcantara would presumably be able to handle second base defensively and his speed and power would be welcome additions, but his inability to make contact renders the discussion moot at this point.
Opening Day second baseman Tommy La Stella injured his oblique back in early April and just recently began another rehabilitation assignment in the hope of returning this season. While La Stella hasn't been an option until now, he's on-base driven approach -- one that is completely devoid of power -- is worth a look at this point provided that he can actually handle something close to an everyday job.
But none of those three options are obviously enticing. One is: Javier Baez. Baez himself missed over a month after breaking his ring finger sliding into second base in an I-Cubs game, but both prior to his injury and since his return, Baez has shown numerous signs of encouragement. His statistics remain strong at Triple-A compared to his production at that level last year -- his strikeouts are down a bit though his walk rate is too, his BABIP is way up, and he's running extremely well -- but the hope for Baez comes just as much from the scouting. Javy has seriously quieted his pre-pitch movement. Though the bat wrap still appears early in counts when Baez wants to take a monster cut, he has shown a true aptitude to simplify his swing when necessary. Monday night's game featured the exact kind of production that should convince the front office to give Baez a shot when Castro takes a break. Baez went 3-for-6, missing the cycle by a home run. He lined a single to right field in the first inning, laced a triple down the left field line in the fifth, and cleared the bases with the game-winning double in the ninth.
The last two plate appearances deserve further mention. On the triple, Baez laid off a big curveball that missed just off the plate outside before getting a curveball over the plate that he pounded down the line in left. His good eye helped him. On the double, Baez took a vicious cut at a first-pitch fastball on the outside corner, then he fouled off yet another heater on the outer third of the plate to get down 0-2. Both swings featured his huge leg kick. Now down 0-2, Baez calmed his approach, trusting his hands to do the work, and he was rewarded: a simple load, an easy toe tap, and his powerful hands screamed through the zone as he laced a liner into the right field corner.
Would Javy Baez be perfect in the Majors this year? Definitely not. He may not ever be perfect. But would he be a massive improvement over Starlin Castro if given the opportunity? I can confidently say yes to that, in part due to my faith and hope in Baez and in part due to Castro's absurdly low floor.
The Cubs could also look outside the organization for an option, but with so many qualified candidates in-house, such an acquisition seems like a bizarre choice to me at this point.
The games remaining on the Cubs' schedule this year are important games. While we're keenly aware of the importance of this week's head-to-head clashes with the Pirates and Giants, each of the 58 games left on the Cubs' schedule plays a role in determining the club's fate.
It's time to put the best team on the field. Despite his previous contributions, it's painfully clear at this point that 2015 Starlin Castro is not a member of that best team. Whether the Cubs make up an injury for Castro and let him get a week in the minors to try to rediscover his approach and swing or simply move him into Herrera's reserve role the rest of the way, please make a change, Theo, Jed, and Joe. Moving Castro to the bench for a few weeks isn't going to substantially alter the long-term plan, and it has a real chance to improve the club's odds of making it to October this year. I'd very much like to see some autumn baseball again.
You do what's best for Starlin. But please do what's best for the Cubs, too.