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Starlin Castro is the key to the 2015 Chicago Cubs’ success

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With the likes of top prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler nearing regular roles with the big league club, the Chicago Cubs’ season has a lot riding on the success of these young names. However, the ultimate linchpin in the team’s upcoming campaign is a household name amongst Cubs fans – shortstop Starlin Castro.

Last season, the Dominican Republic native bounced back – earning his third National League All-Star selection in his five big league campaigns – batting .292/.339/.438 in just 134 games. He missed the season’s final month with a high ankle injury, but will be ready for the opening of camp next month in Arizona.

His .438 slugging percentage was the best of his big league career – and he tied a career-high with 14 home runs – despite the missed time. He also set a career-high with a .777 OPS while adding 33 doubles. Castro’s contributions were a major factor in the team avoiding the 90-loss mark for the first time in years – and in 2015, there will be a lot more riding on his success.

With the additions of Dexter Fowler, Jon Lester and Miguel Montero – among others – the Cubs will be poised to make a  legitimate run at the National League Central as early as this year. Factor in the arrival of new manager Joe Maddon and the organization’s top prospect Kris Bryant and it’s abundantly clear that this isn’t the same team we’ve seen in recent years.

That being said, Bryant is unproven. While we all hope and believe that he will be an offensive force for years to come, the simple truth is this: he has not yet played a game at the big league level and could very well face a learning curve. His fellow prospect, Baez, tore up minor league pitching for years before falling flat on his face last season in Chicago. With that in mind, it’s reasonable to lower expectations for Bryant until he gives us a reason to think otherwise.

Baez, who struck out in roughly half of his at-bats last season with the Cubs, has continued to struggle with his plate discipline this winter in Puerto Rico and could open the 2015 campaign with Triple-A Iowa unless he has a strong showing the spring.

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Baez’ partner on the right side of the diamond, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, is another logical choice as the team’s linchpin this season. However, his production becomes somewhat less critical given the other offensive pieces the front office has assembled around him this offseason. If he can continue his outstanding approach he demonstrated last season as an All-Star with the Cubs, he may not be the biggest threat on the team – but could be a dark horse candidate for NL Most Valuable Player.

However, for multiple reasons – the Cubs’ success in both 2015 and years to come relies more on Castro than any other single player in the organization. Under a team-friendly deal through 2020, the shortstop could become an annual 200-hit machine, emerging as the best middle infielder in the game today. Such production may also lead to a departure from Chicago, especially when the likes of Addison Russell arrive, and All-Star-caliber work would fetch the team a much more handsome return.

After bouncing back in a big way last season, it became clear that Starlin Castro is the real deal. If he can put it together for an entire season and perhaps even hit the 20-homer mark for the first time in his career, he could very well lead the Chicago Cubs back to the postseason.

Next: John Mallee looks to change Cubs' approach at dish

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