If you consult any guide about the upcoming 2014 MLB season, you’ll undoubtedly see one storyline about the Chicago Cubs:
They can’t hit.
Last season, the Cubs finished 28th in the majors in runs, with only 602 to their credit (four runs ahead of the White Sox). Weirdly enough, they finished 9th in the league in home runs with 172, but their overall batting average is what hurt them in the runs department, as they batted .238 to finish 27th in MLB.
One of the big reasons that the Cubs struggled so badly at the plate was that they could never get consistent production out of their big guns. Outside of a hot April, Anthony Rizzo was largely pedestrian, but even his numbers were better than those of shortstop Starlin Castro. In 705 plate appearances last year, Castro had a slash line of .245/.284/.347 (Batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage), hit only 10 home runs, and drove in 44 runs.
Those numbers weren’t just bad, but they were a startling bit of regression for a player who was only 23 years old and playing in his third full MLB season. The 59 runs he scored represent a 32 run drop from his 2011 total of 91, and he drove in 34 fewer runs from his 2012 season despite having 14 more plate appearances to his credit. Finally, Castro wasn’t taking the extra base as often as he had been in 2012, getting only two triples in 2013 as compared to 12 in the previous season.
With all of those bad numbers, it’s easy to see why Castro’s WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) was an even 0.0 last season. For those who don’t know who WARP works, it essentially measures how effective a player is in comparison to a standard Minor Leaguer at the position. Castro’s 0.0 means that a triple-A shortstop would have put up similar, if not better, numbers in 2013.
The real question then is whether or not Castro can rebound from his abysmal season. When you combine his young age, his potential upside, and the fact that he’ll be working with a manager that he’ll likely be able to tolerate (Rick Renteria > Dale Sveum), it isn’t out of the question to think that he will. Here’s how a few different websites and outlets see Castro’s season playing out:
Just about every one of the four projections has Castro having a bit of a bounce back year, but still nowhere near the kind of production that Cubs fans thought he would be getting in his fourth full season in the majors. Baseball Prospectus seems to be the most bullish on his chances for a good year, giving him 16 stolen bases, a .279 average, and an OPS of .723. His 78 runs are also the highest among the projected numbers in that category.
When asking the question of whether or not Castro will have a bounce back year for the Cubs in 2014, there are a couple of factors that have to be considered. First off, where will he bat in the lineup? If he is batting lead-off, his free swinging approach could be a bit of a liability, and his OBP and other numbers could suffer. If he is batting second, he could receive a measure of protection from the middle of the lineup, and his ability to hit to all fields (when his game is on, that is) could be an asset in that spot.
Finally, there is the possibility of slotting him fifth in the order behind Rizzo, but that comes with its own set of issues. With his high strikeout rate last season, Castro could become a rally killer if Rizzo is able to knock in runs this season, and that isn’t something that Renteria will want out of that spot.
There is also the question of whether or not Castro will get along with Renteria in the first place. Last season, Castro’s relationship with Sveum likely had a lot to do not only with his own regression, but also Sveum’s ouster by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Pulling the plug on a manager after only two seasons with an incredibly mediocre roster suggests that the leadership duo feels they made a mistake in their hire, and they believe that their young players weren’t fostering the kind of relationship with Sveum that could foster success.
If Castro can find a consistent spot in the lineup, continue to improve on his pitch selection (which he did well at last year before reverting back to old habits late in the season) and, most importantly of all, remain engaged in games, then his numbers should bounce back to respectable levels. He may never be a top-5 shortstop option when it comes to offensive prowess, but if he can come back into discussion as a top-10 guy, then that’s a big win for Renteria’s new tenure as skipper.