Guest Post by Noah Eisner
Let’s start with the obvious: Starlin Castro is the most exciting thing about the Cubs right now. Four of the six View from the Bleachers writers participating in the July 19 Roundtable named him the team MVP thus far. He’s a legitimate star in the making, and the things he’s doing at age 21 are pretty amazing.
But was it a mistake for the Cubs to call him up on May 7, 2010? Thanks to Jonah Keri, many of us know a lot more about the Tampa Bay Rays organization than we did six months ago, including one basic organizational tenet they follow: the Rays do not call up prospects until they are sure they are ready. This is for a pretty simple reason. The Rays have a very small payroll, so those six to six and a half years of team control are vitally important for them. They can’t hang on to most players once they hit free agency, so it’s important for them to get the most out of their players while they are cheap.
So let’s go back to May 7, 2009. The Cubs were 13-16 heading into the first game in a series against at Cincinnati. In an attempt to put a jolt in the team, the Cubs called up the 20 year old Castro. I should note that I think the idea that calling up a prospect can charge a team up to turn a bad team into a good team is a pretty laughable idea, but it is something approaching that general baseball “common knowledge” that a lot of players and former players buy in to.
Since that time, the Cubs have gone 102-131 (I’m writing this on the evening of July 22.) In other words, the Cubs have been bad since Castro has been a member of them. This isn’t to say that Castro has been bad. Over that period he’s been worth 3.9 WAR according to FanGraphs and 1.1 WAR according to Baseball Reference. The Cubs being bad hasn’t been Castro’s fault. They just aren’t a good team.
But it’s clear that Castro is a flawed player at this point in his career. On the plus side, Castro has elite contact skills, including an ability to make solid contact on balls outside of the zone that rivals Vladimir Guerrero, has good gap power for a shortstop, and has improved his base stealing efficiency. On the other hand, he’s an impatient hitter (4.2% BB%) and is a work in progress in the field.
It’s not clear that spending more time in the minors would have done anything to improve Castro’s walk rate. Not only is it a notoriously difficult skill to teach, but the Cubs also don’t have a great track record with improving their top prospects’ walk rates (Josh Vitters anyone?) On the defensive side, Castro’s been spending much of the past year working on his footwork this season, and has improved as the season progressed. After accumulating 7 errors in April, Castro has since added 11 more. That’s still a rate of about 4 and a half errors per month, which is too many despite being a significant improvement. But Castro could have worked on those same defensive skills in Tennessee and Iowa with strong odds of similar improvement.
The problem is that bringing Castro up in May 2010 is going to cost the Cubs millions of dollars. Cots currently shows Castro hitting free agency after the 2015 season. He’s going to hit arbitration for the first time in the 2013 season. Had the Cubs kept Castro in the minor leagues until June of this year, they may have lost a couple more games since May 7, 2010. But Castro would not hit arbitration until the 2015 season, and wouldn’t be a free agent until after the 2017 season. In other words, rushing Castro to the majors for seasons where they haven’t been in a position to compete is going to make the Cubs pay Castro something approaching market rates for two seasons they otherwise wouldn’t have. While watching Castro right now is almost unarguably the most exciting part of being a Cubs fan, the fact that he’s been in the Majors for almost a year and a half already is going to negatively impact the Cubs’ budget in the future.