Pressure Continues to Mount on Starlin Castro in Sixth Season with Cubs

As he enters his sixth season with the Chicago Cubs, it’s easy to forget that Starlin Castro, starting shortstop, is still only 25 years old. Because he’s had so much early success, the expectations for his performance only increase. He’s a young veteran who could be on the verge of the best years of his career.

Last summer, the Dominican product played 134 games at arguably the most important defensive position on the field, while also hitting .292 at the plate and matching his career-high total of 14 homeruns. Perhaps that’s some of why he was placed in the clean-up spot on Sunday’s opening day matchup with the Cardinals.

Castro’s really been quite consistent during his time in Chicago with the exception of a 2013 season in which he only hit .245 and struck out a career-high 129 times. Perhaps those numbers can be attributed to his adjusting to a new organizational philosophy at that time. (In recent seasons, Castro’s stolen bases numbers are way down, too, but again, that probably says a lot more about Epstein than it does Castro. Think Moneyball).

The thing is, though, for all of Castro’s first five seasons, 1) being the best player on a bad Cubs’ team really didn’t say all that much and 2) the stakes were so low that it hardly mattered if he went two for four or zero for three at the plate (or booted a ground ball early in the game).

The good news is that the Theo Epstein regime has been carefully building its pieces for a few years now. Castro has a lot more help than he used to and more is probably on the way. Castro doesn’t have to do it all alone.

Organizational depth could also add to the pressure Castro feels, though. It’s no secret that two of the Cubs’ best minor league prospects, Addison Russell (who came over from the Oakland A’s in the Jeff Samardzija trade last summer) and Javier Baez both play shortstop, although Baez is expected to play second base for now. Baez and Russell are both starting the season in Triple-A, but there’s no guarantee they’ll stay there for long, especially if they play well.

Such a logjam of young middle-infield talent could create an interesting dilemma of who to put on the field. Epstein has historically shown a willingness to ship the older guys (Castro in this case, believe it or not) elsewhere. A little healthy competition could light a fire under Castro’s ass, or, depending on how he handles it, could be his undoing. No matter what happens, it will be interesting to watch.

Whether or not this year’s team could make a playoff push remains to be seen. The Cubs may still be a year or so away or maybe they’ll surprise us. What is certain is that barring an injury, Castro is likely to be found in the middle of the action for now.

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