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July 2011

44

COMMENTS

Should the Cubs Have Waited to Call Up Castro?

Written by , Posted in General

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.

  • Really?

  • umncubs

    What a silly post.

  • Katie

    Nice post. I agree. Castro’s a great hitter, but his defense is bad. He is a talented player, no doubt. A little extra time in the minors would have been good for him, especially his defense. And having such a young talent on such a horrible team can frustrate that talent and he might not play to his full potential.

    Also, I was not happy that they kicked Theriot over to 2nd base. His numbers dropped when they did that. His numbers were about average until they called up Castro, and then they traded him. UGH. There was really no reason to bring Castro up so soon… it’s not like the Cubs were going to win anything anyways. Let the kid develop a little more… but you can’t change the past, and don’t get me wrong, Castro is a great hitter, he just makes bad plays sometimes.

  • Yes and no. The difference is that the Rays have a small payroll. The Cubs can actually afford to have a huge payroll. The Cubs problem is that they have not spent those payroll dollars wisely.

    So, yeah, they could’ve saved millions on Castro by waiting until the team was better prepared to take advantage of his presence, but at the same time Castro has surely sold some tickets since he came up.

    There are two problems. The first is that the Cubs are so bad, no one has the patience to wait for a prospect to be ready for the majors. The second is that no one has faith that the Cubs minor league system is capable of making a prospect ready for the majors.

    It seems like every prospect that comes up has some major flaw that has to be fixed and the player gets further screwed up by that process.

    This is why wholesale changes are needed in management. The Cubs organization is incompetent at developing their own talent and is incompetent at signing/trading for veteran talent.

    But tonight we go for 4 in a row!!

  • Theriot should never have NOT been at 2B….the range of a lamppost, plus the arm of a popgun equals a very mediocre defensive shortstop. His numbers going down…meh..he has a career OPS+ of 83. I like The Riot, but he’s just not that good of a player. Agreed….the Cubs were going nowhere fast. They could’ve let Castro have a full season at AAA, and let him work on his defense there. I’d like to know how many seasons of playing it takes, to be able to just make the routine plays every time.

    • Jeremiah Johnson

      +1 for the double negative Dusty.

      • Meh….it was a long day yesterday….death in my family sheesh… but -50 for the double negative..

    • Jeremiah Johnson

      I was being serious. For me, it’s never not a good time for a double negative.

      Sorry to hear about the death in the family–my condolences.

  • Norm

    There comes a point where a hitter needs to be challenged. Castro was at that point in AA. He’s going to live and die with his bat, not his glove. In order to fully develop the bat, he needed to be challenged by big league pitchers. He proved ready for the challenge.
    As for his defense, he can learn just as well at Wrigley as he can at Iowa. Fields are in better condition, field coaches are better, and his peers are better to learn from than those at AAA.
    I believe the Cubs will sign him to an extension long before he reaches free agency, buying out some free agent years, and a couple million dollars should not be a problem for the Cubs.

  • Bob

    Another difference between the Rays and the Cubs is the quality of their farm system. You can make the case that the Rays farm system is a good development environment because of the consistent turnout from its farm system.

    With the Cubs, you can’t make that same case. So, in some ways, it may have been to Castro’s benefit (and Barney’s for that matter) to get OUT of the Cubs farm system as quickly as possible. If we look at Colvin, Vitters, etc., they aren’t really being helped by the Cubs development system.
    The farm system has been run by the same guy (Fleita) for over 10 years and his stewardship requires scrutinizing.

  • Buddy

    I was glad when they called Castro up in 2010, and I’m still glad. He’s an elite talent who’s holding his own despite the defensive and plate-discipline-related speed bumps.

  • Eddie Von White

    I am not a Castro fan. He seems to think the closer he makes the play look at first, the better he looks. I think he is overrated and hasn’t improved the team since he came up. Time will tell, but I predict Castro will be a run of the mill lifetime .265 hitter. Remember Geo’s rookie year? He was supposed to be the reincarnation of Johnny Bench. Now he’s barely hitting 2 and a quarter.

    I’ve heard Castro’s two years older than they say. Is there any way to verify these guys’ birth dates?

    Overall, the Cubs were better off with Theriot and Fontenot in the center of the infield than Castro and Barney.

    • Norm

      .265 hitter?
      And out of curiosity, where did you hear he was 2 years older? I read a lot of baseball. A LOT. Never seen anything like that. Not to say that it isn’t true, but would love to hear the source.
      Anyway, do you know how many 20 year old’s have hit .300? I believe you can count them on one hand.
      Castro will be a stud for a long, long time. Defensively? No, but Derek Jeter got away with it! And I think eventually Castro moves out from shortstop anyway.

      • Seymour Butts

        I believe Glen Beck brought up the issue about the phony birth certificate. Must be legit…

      • Eddie Von White

        I heard it on a radio call-in show – can’t remember if it was Chicago or Madison WI. All I’m saying is the possibility is there – remember Miguel Tejada’s interview with ESPN when he signed with the Stros and how he got mad and walked out of the interview. How do we know if we don’t ask?

    • What in Castro’s minor or major league numbers makes you think he’ll be a .265 hitter? He hit .310 in the minors, and in 884 atbats in the majors, he’s hitting .301.
      Theriot’s lifetime OPS+ is 83..Fontenot ‘s is 92, and he’s been a part time player since leaving the Cubs. Barney is only at 91 this year, but is a much better defender than any of those 3, at either position.
      Castro and Barney need to continue to develop, but really.. longing for the days of Theriot and Fontenot?

      • Eddie Von White

        I’m longing for the days when the Cubs were in the heat of a pennant run – it just so happens the last time that happened Theriot and Fontenot held down the middle infield.

        The last time the Cubs were winners was when they had a team of mostly average players overachieve. Yeah…I’m longing for those days again.

      • Aramis Ramirez was an over-achiever? Derrek Lee? Who else on the Cubs was part of this utopian over achieving?

    • Yeah, he sucks. Marshall makes me want to puke…that Garza guy is really starting to piss me off, too.

    • Seymour Butts

      Keen insight, most folks would look at Castro’s early success and project that a 20-21 year old would get better in his mid 20’s as only 90+% of youngsters do.

      • Buddy

        Agreed Seymour. It’s pretty amazing how well Castro is playing in the Majors at his very young age.

  • Jedi

    We have a hard enough time getting homegrown talent TO the big leagues, I’m not complaining if it comes a bit early. Free agency has put us in more of monetary bind than anything.

    Plus, if we waited to promote guys until the MLB club was any good, we’d have waited for Ernie Banks to retire before he got his turn.

  • Randy

    If Castro were 23 he would still be very good for his age. I’m mixed on if calling him up last year was a mistake or not, I would have prefer him to have played out last year at AA and gotten more experience in Fall and Winter ball. I also think that Castro has not really improved this year over last defensively. Carlos Pena saves his bacon on just about every throw he makes to first, he also has a big issue with his positioning and footwork despite constant working on the problem. That being said I think he might need to test the waters for playing third base instead of sticking with shortstop. That being said, he’s still a lot of fun to watch, primarily because he’s always having fun playing ball.

  • Doc Raker

    I can understand holding a player back a month or two so you get the extra year before arbitration and free agency but an entire year or two is not wise. If the prospect is ready to hit in the bigs bring them up, if in June vs April to get that extra year sure, if in 2012 vs 2011 no.

    • PackerCubBull

      This. I would have waited a few extra weeks to call him up to remove the possibility of him being declared a Super-2 player. Because if he gets the Super-2 status after 2012, then he starts the arbitration clock a year early. Not sure if that means he gets FA in 2015 or if it just means an extra arbitration year and he is still a FA after 2016. Does anyone know what the rules are on that?

  • Buddy

    Interesting stuff as always! I don’t recall anybody comparing Soto to Johnny Bench, but maybe I’m forgetting something obvious. As for Theriot and Fontenot, they contribute almost nothing offensively, and Theriot has an arm like my Aunt Mildred. Fontenot did look promising at the plate for a very brief time in 2008, but of course that turned out to be false. Now I’m no Darwin Barney fan, as he doesn’t do much at the plate either, but he’s 10 times better defensively than Fontentot or “The Riot.”

    • Eddie Von White

      Which would you rather watch: the Cubs today with Castro hitting .300 and double tapping his glove on every play on a route to 100 losses? Or watch the Cubs when their winning 97 games with people like Aunt Mildred lobbing the ball over to first?

      • Norm

        Winning 97 games, obviously.
        Just like I’d rather watch Fontenot and 97 wins over watching Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson team up for last place.
        Does that make Fontenot better than Sandberg? Or was Fontenot lucky enough to play on a better team?

      • Buddy

        I’m a bit confused (which happens to me a lot). How would a rag-armed short stop who doesn’t get on base help the Cubs win 97 games? Also, are you saying Castro’s 18 errors are to blame for the Cubs 2011 mess?

      • Not only did the light-hitting, mullet-headed Cajuns lack sticks and arms, but their ranges were respectively awful. At least Castro can get to the ball, in order to boot it. I think my vote if in favor of talent.

      • Also…I’m pretty sure that Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, Dempster, Zambrano, DeRosa…Lilly..Soto…had a bit to do with the Cubs winning in 2007-2009.

        Saying the Cubs success in 2007-2009 is because of Theriot and Fontenot, is like saying the 1984 Cubs success was due to Larry Bowa and Tim Stoddard. There is a reason that Fontenot, and Theriot were traded. Theriot wasn’t good valuable enough once arbitration started to kick in, and fontenot isn’t that good.

      • Eddie Von White

        All true…but I still long for those days when the Cubs were winning. Statistics give the commentators something to kill air time with, but the only statistic that matters is wins and losses. Lee,Ram Ram, Soriano, etc were overachieving. They haven’t had a season like ’08 since.

        I wish hustling was a stat.

      • Buddy

        Of course! We all do! Just saying that the winning days had little-to-nothing to do with Theriot and Fontenot. They’re probably nice guys who love dogs, mow their lawns, eat their veggies, etc. They’re just bad Major League Baseball players.

  • flyslinger2

    I think I am going to start every post from now on with the reminder: “Follow the money.” This is not a game anymore, it is a business/commodity. Each and every decision that is made has multiple factors in the equation with the ultimate goal of filling seats, selling hot dogs and beer and moving more memorabilia into the hands of the consumer. The other part of the equation, and yes this is one equation where there are two equal signs(!), is the continued increased value of the commodity which is the franchise itself.

    We, as purists who “worship” the game, love to talk the nitty gritty, memorize useless stats and reminisce of better days. That is the game to us. Sure the owners get a rise out of a home run ball flying deep into the stands but that’s because they know more beer sales will flow immediately-trust me, they have had marketing studies done on that.

    I don’t think players are carefully considered anymore if their extra time in the minors will improve necessary skills prior to moving them to the bigs. I think it’s whatever is prudent at the time to hopefully make a bigger, faster, all mightier buck. Players are another commodity in the very complex puzzle of the enterprise called baseball. They are used to hopefully complete that formula that will magically create that financial bonanza every owner hopes for-the world series payoff.

    If I recall correctly, Castro double tapped his mitt before making a throw to first base in Sundays game. That extra millisecond of time, lack of discipline, allowed the runner to beat out the throw. I do believe that resulted in a run later. That is the kind of error he shouldn’t be making. I think that type of discipline should have been ironed out in the minors.

    Side note: I actually got to watch the game on TV here in DC on Sunday-WOOT!!

  • Noah Eisner

    I have to say that my inspiration for this article came from a Jonah Keri chat a couple of weeks ago. As any of you who have read “The Extra 2%” know, outside of the Rays’ front office he’s probably the biggest expert on that organization. One of the posts asked Keri if the Rays would have called up Castro last season if he had been in their system. Keri’s answer was likely not because of the defensive issues.

    With that said, there are a lot of good points in the comments here. The Rays have one of the best organized systems in baseball. The Cubs do not. On top of that, the Rays exist in a division and league where they have to aim for 95 games to ensure a playoff spot. The Cubs have to aim for 87 or 88 to have a good shot at the NL Central right now.

    Clearly the end result of this inquiry would be if the Cubs or Castro would be better off as things are now or if they would have been better off keeping him down a bit longer? And, since none of us are clairvoyent (at least as far as I know) that’s an unanswerable question.

  • Buddy

    I know that I wouldn’t have been better off if the Cubs waited to bring up Castro. He’s about the only reason I watch.

  • Kris

    I actually got kind of giddy when I saw this column. I’ve brought this same issue up a few times here, and I usually hear crickets chirping in response. I’d have no problem with Castro being brought up in a season like this–we have nothing to lose and might as well get him some solid experience at the top level. But I do think he was brought up too early, and his errors (mental and otherwise) are evidence of that. He has tremendous potential, and I think he’ll settle in fine eventually. I think he was pulled up just a smidge too early.

    I also hate it when they have a guy skip an entire level in the minors. I also get worried everytime we have a player in the system who quickly gets dubbed the best thing ever. We set them up for failure, because everyone seems to think they’re going to be what gets the Cubs a winning season. It’s a team sport, and it just doesn’t work that way.

  • MJ

    “I’d like to know how many seasons of playing it takes, to be able to just make the routine plays every time.”
    .
    .
    Dusty Baylor would have to ask this question.

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    Nice job, Noah–I think you’ve raised an interesting question.

    I don’t make that much of Castro’s defensive mistakes. He plays SS like a 21 year-old, and I think we can expect him to get better with experience. He might even win a Gold Glove someday (since offensive production and name-recognition appear to factor into the award, he’s already got an advantage). Put it this way: I’ll take 18+ errors from Castro and the hope that he can grow out of it against Soriano’s perenially bad habits turning routine singles into doubles out in LF.

    For me, the deciding factor is that I wouldn’t send a guy like Castro back down to the minors to tighten up his defense. Castro’s primary value to the team is his bat, and from that perspective, facing off against big-league pitching every day is more important than the extra infield work he might get in the minors.

    In an ideal situation, or even in the Tampa Bay organization, you’d like to wait for all your players to be as well-rounded as possible before you promote them. The competition in the AL East forces the Rays to wait as long as they can–they’re dropping their top prospects into the deepest-possible end of the big-league pool, and their farm system is the best source of new talent they have (free agents aren’t lining up to go to Tampa Bay). The Cubs don’t have those same limitations, so a guy like Castro can move up earlier than he might elsewhere.

    Ultimately I’m glad they moved up Castro when they did. Warts and all, Castro is still out-playing virtually every other player his age, and many who are much older and more seasoned. The hope is that he’ll only get better, and we all know how rare hope is for Cubs fans.

  • Buddy

    To expand on Jeremiah’s point, Robin Yount made 44 errors as a 19-year-old Major League SS. Ozzie committed 25 his first year in the bigs at age 23. It’s a tough position, especially for a youngster.

    • Jedi

      Robin Yount is perhaps a bit of a bad comparison – since he was forced to go to the outfield later in his career.

      How about Hanley Ramirez – another SS who makes a living at the plate, but can still field his position. Ramirez started his career with 26 errors as a 22-year old. In the last TWO years combined he’s made 26 errors total.

      Even Shawon Dunston had 32 errors as a 23-year old, and then never more than 21 in a season after that.

      If Castro’s errors are the Cubs’ biggest problem next year, we’ve got nothing to worry about. Somehow, I doubt it though.

  • Buddy

    Yount did move to the OF, but it was in the late 1980s. They got 10+ years of SS out of him before his arm went.

  • Doug Bagley

    This debate reminds me of when fans want their teams to go ahead and tank the rest of the year to get a better draft pick. Seems silly, if they can’t afford Castro’s big contract in say 2015…then why would they be able to afford in 2017? Does castro make bonehead plays? of course. But he does plenty of making up for them.