For a few seasons, it seemed like countless baseball pundits debated which up-and-coming National League shortstop would don Yankees pinstripes: the Cubs' Starlin Castro or the Diamondbacks' Didi Gregorius. Even fans knew that Derek Jeter could not maintain his Hall of Fame form forever, and with all due respect to the Cito Culver family, the farm system did not have any solutions. It turns out the correct answer to that debate was "both."
Just one year and a few days after acquiring Gregorius from the Diamondbacks, the Yankees added Castro to the mix. Both deals involved selling high on intriguing young pitchers with less than a season's worth of starts under their belt, and though Adam Warren also had proven talent in the bullpen, the media seemed to feel that GM Brian Cashman did well to bring Castro and Gregorius aboard. The Yankees struck gold in the first season after the Gregorius, as after a slow start, Gregorius rebounded to become a pesky out in the lineup and a Gold Glove caliber defender while Shane Greene faltered and got hurt in Detroit.
Perhaps the most exciting part about the Castro trade is that he has a pure ceiling likely even higher than Gregorius. When Gregorius played his first full season, he was 23. In contrast, Castro had three seasons under his belt before his 23rd birthday. A native of the Dominican Republic, Castro was discovered by the Cubs when he was just 16 years old in 2006. Scout coordinator Jose Serra watched as the teenager sprayed line drives all over the field and demonstrated remarkable range on defense. It was hardly a surprise when Castro was signed for $45,000 later that October; then again, like many international standouts (such as Luis Severino), that wasn't an enormous cost. Castro would become the last surviving major league Cub under GM Jim Hendry prior to Theo Epstein's arrival, but he became one of his best signings.
Castro charged through the minors at a remarkable pace for a teenager, catching eyes in 2009 by hitting .299/.342/.392 between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, and then following it up by posting an .871 OPS in the Arizona Fall League. Baseball America analyst Jim Callis ranked him the 17th best prospect in baseball prior to 2010, and number one in the Cubs' system. Callis raved about Castro's athleticism and approach at the plate, noting that he "consistently puts the barrel of the bat on the ball and has a knack for making adjustments." Despite the high error total, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus noted that his defensive fundamentals were "outstanding" and had him in the upper half of his Top 100 Prospects as well.
Although Castro began 2010 in Double-A, people in the game thought that the Cubs would take their time moving Castro along. Well after batting .367/.413/.560 in 26 games, the Cubs had seen enough. Just a month and a half after turning 20, Castro made his highly anticipated MLB debut at Great American Ballpark on May 7, 2010 in a 14-7 blowout victory over the Reds. His first game was something to remember for Cubs fans everywhere:
Castro crushed a three-run homer to right field in his first MLB at-bat, and then went on to become the only player in major league history to record a six-RBI game in his debut. His first full season was terrific, as he hit .300/.347/.408 with 31 doubles, a 100 OPS+, and 1.6 WAR in 125 games, earning a few down-ballot vote for NL Rookie of the Year.
The next two years were even better. Castro made back-to-back All-Star appearances in his early twenties and led the National League in hits in 2011 with 207. During those two seasons, he combined for a .295/.332/.431 triple slash and a 106 OPS+ while smacking 65 doubles, 21 triples, and 24 homers and stealing 47 bases to boot. The Cubs had a budding superstar on their hands as Epstein took over the team and it looked as though Castro would be the centerpiece for years to come. Management agreed and gave him a seven-year, $60 million extension that locked him up through at least 2019 with a $19 million option for 2020.
The past three seasons though represent how a potential superstar can end up getting traded for a mere swingman and a bench player. Since 2012, Castro has dipped to a .265/.305/.383 batting line, only good for an 89 OPS+. He had his third All-Star season in 2014, but it was sandwiched by two ugly campaigns in which he hovered around replacement level due to his inconsistent bat (73 and 83 OPS+ marks in 2013 and 2014, respectively) and increasingly shaky defense. There were questions about his in-game makeup and off-the-field concerns as well, as his 2012 sexual assault charges were coupled with confusion about his involvement in a Dominican night club shooting near the end of 2014.
To his credit, Castro took steps to move on from these incidents by moving to Arizona in 2015 to distance himself from these associates, and Epstein spoke about how Castro had matured. The first half of 2015 did not go well as Castro was benched in favor of new prospect Addison Russell, but the Cubs often talked about how he handled to transition gracefully and make a strong impression in the clubhouse. They eventually found a home for him at second in August, and it was smooth sailing from there.
From August onward, Castro caught fire, batting .335/.362/.555 with 21 extra base hits in just 52 games as the Cubs charged to their first playoff appearance in seven years. Castro was only 25, but he was the longest tenured Cub, and it was a gratifying feeling when they at last clinched the Wild Card, sending him to the postseason for the first time. After taking down the Pirates in the one-game playoff, the Cardinals took down their longtime rivals, the 100-win NL Central champion Cardinals in a four-game NLDS. Castro hit .286/.333/.500, including one of a playoff record six homers in one game by the Cubs in Game 3:
Like pretty much every other player on the North Side of Chicago, Castro's bat went quiet in the NLDS sweep at the hands of the Mets; so it goes at times in postseason play.
Now, Castro finds himself in Yankees pinstripes with a great deal expectations. However, the nice thing is that he's used to it. He faced a ton of criticism for his inconsistency in Chicago and emerged with a mostly positive reputation among people in the game (it's not like that Yankees clubhouse is hurting for veteran leadership who could help Castro anyway). He is a desperately needed righthanded bat in a lineup full of lefties that could really use someone not afraid to hack away against southpaws. Alcides Escobar had an up-and-down season with the Royals, but in the playoffs, he demonstrated that there can be value to players who are not as patient at the plate.
It's tough to assess from the outside how Castro will take to second base long term, but since he used to be considered a solid defensive shortstop, it is reasonable to think he can tackle an easier position on the defensive spectrum. (It's certainly easier than moving from right field to second base, as evidenced by the mixed reviews on Rob Refsnyder's defense.) Scouts seemed to think he handled the transition well in his last few months there. For what it's worth, he sure passes the eye test--watch the range and awesome throw on this play:
That will do.
There's no denying that Cashman and the Yankees are rolling the dice here. Castro has had both good years and bad, and he'll be spending his first full season at a new position in 2016. He could be the 2014 All-Star, or he could be the 2013 nightmare. However, with second base not offering any clear-cut answers for the future, Castro has enough talent that he's worth the risk. There is no need for a platoon with Castro, a more complete player than both Refsnyder and Dustin Ackley. Also remember that Refsnyder (a fine prospect, but one never really considered Top 100 caliber by anyone outside of the Yankees fanbase) is only one year younger than Castro and Castro is only nine hits away from his 1,000th in the major leagues. Sometimes the non-Top 100 prospects pan out, but true talent usually prevails in the end.
Can Castro return his All-Star form? Given the remarkable progress the Yankees made with Gregorius from his 2014 play to 2015, it should not shock anyone.