In an early spring training press conference, Jed Hoyer reiterated the Chicago Cubs position on Starlin Castro: he is and will remain the starting shortstop. While the Cubs have fielded questions regarding Castro’s defensive position (pun intended) for years, the 2014 season is the first time that the team has actually had another player that could really challenge Castro for the position. In fact, the team has two players that could do just that: Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez.
During his first three seasons, Castro was one of the few bright spots in a very weak Cubs offense. The biggest question surrounding the soon-to-be 24-year-old has always been what to do with him defensively. In only 602 career starts, Starlin has made 105 errors and has a .961 fielding percentage. To understand how bad that is, Castro has had the worst fielding percentage of any qualified NL shortstop in each of his three full seasons as the Cubs’ starting shortstop. In fact, Jed Lowrie in 2013 is the only qualified AL shortstop to have a worse fielding percentage than Castro. In each of these seasons, Starlin has made the most errors of any shortstop in the major leagues. Consider that one of the best defensive shortstops in the league, Jimmy Rollins, who has won four of the last seven NL Gold Gloves, has only made 136 errors in his career. Rollins has played 1,927 games at shortstop.
The good news is that Castro’s numbers are actually improving. He has made fewer errors and improved his overall fielding percentage in each of the past three seasons. But after Castro’s poor showing at the plate in 2013, the Cubs and their fans appear to be growing increasingly impatient with Starlin. Additionally, 2014 presents an issue that the Cubs have not previously had in the Castro-era at shortstop: alternative options. With two top-rated shortstops, Baez and Alcantara, lurking in AAA in 2014, the Cubs have potentially viable options to dethrone Castro. The question becomes this: is either prospect a truly viable option at shortstop?
Starting with the Cubs’ top-rated prospect, Javier Baez does not appear to be a viable option. While Baez projects as a middle-of-the-lineup hitter, his defense is a bigger question mark than Castro’s. Baez has made a whopping 115 errors in 209 minor league games and his lifetime fielding percentage is .934. While he may develop into a better defender over time, I find it hard to believe that he has any more potential on defense than Castro. Disappointingly, the numbers for Alcantara are actually worse than either Castro or Baez. He has made 213 errors in 429 minor league games at three different positions (3rd base, 2nd base, and shortstop), 111 of those errors came in 260 games at shortstop (fielding percentage of .908).
Overall, I believe Hoyer’s statement that Castro is the shortstop of the future. Castro boasts an extremely strong arm and above average range. There is little doubt that his strong arm is very wild, and he is prone to making ‘mental errors,’ but he has the tools to be a solid defensive shortstop. Additionally, the other two prospects have had similar struggles handling the shortstop position. Castro is still very young and has demonstrated improvement. Unless one of the other two players earns the opportunity through defensive excellence, it doesn’t make sense to force one of them into the position when the team still needs to fill holes at third base and second base.
The bottom line is this: in his first three seasons, Castro’s poor defensive play was balanced by strong offensive performance. The more important issue in 2014 will be Castro’s bat, not his glove. If Starlin does not bounce back at the plate, the Cubs may need to strongly consider whether he fits into the long-term plan at all.