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Feb. 18 2010 - 3:06 pm | 194 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Cubs err in allowing hype to engulf Starlin Castro

ST LOUIS, MO - JULY 12: World Futures All-Star...

Starlin Castro in action at the World Futures All-Star Game in St. Louis last July 12 (image via Getty Images).

Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Or something like that.

They’re slow learners, obviously, in Chicago Cubs management. When will they ever realize they cannot put all the eggs in one kid’s basket, like he’s the savior first of the farm system, then the entire franchise?

Maybe I’m not as baseball-savvy as the myriad of honchos that work all the way up to and include Cubs GM Jim Hendry. But why, with the examples of Corey Patterson and Felix Pie fresh in their minds, are they allowing all sorts of hype to engulf promising shortstop prospect Starlin Castro, who won’t even turn 20 until March 24?

The response from the execs almost always is the media creates the hype. Well, they left out half the equation. The media didn’t pick Castro out of thin air to designate him the next-best thing to sliced bread. Multiple officials had to tout him, promote him, point to him as an up-and-comer.

Maybe Castro is a wunderkind, talented enough and mature enough as a teen-ager one year removed from the Dominican Summer League to jump over two low-Class A minor-league levels and play the majority of 2009 in Daytona of the competitive high-A Florida State League. Maybe good enough to then earn a promotion to Double-A Tennessee, where he was managed by Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. And maybe advanced enough to warrant a look-see with the big club in spring training now, with just a chance that a sensational camp will punch a ticket directly to Wrigley Field.

There’s a couple of things wrong with this scenario. If I were Jim Hendry and top aide/farm director Oneri Fleita, I would have put the brakes on Castro. Let the kid simmer and percolate through all levels of the minors. Allow native Dominican Castro to learn English, to assimilate in both the pro baseball and the culture of a different country.  What’s the rush? Are they that desperate to shift Ryan Theriot from shortstop to second?

The dangers of pushing a top prospect too far, too fast is found in the Patterson story. Picked No. 3 in the 1998 draft, Patterson zoomed from low-Class A Midwest League in Lansing, Mich. in 1999  to Double-A in 2000 and right to the Cubs. He was never taught how to bunt properly or otherwise employ his blinding speed to the organization’s greatest benefit. Dusty Baker later admitted Patterson was promoted too quickly, becoming a lineup regular  just before he arrived as Cubs manager. Making matters worse, Patterson was stubborn in a number of ways.  Once in the majors but struggling, Patterson saw no need to go back down to the minors to work on his game. And he resisted suggestions about his hitting mechanics from his big-league tutors. Since the Cubs let him go in 2005,  Patterson has wandered from one organization to another, barely hanging onto his career.

Felix Pie, also a left-handed-hitting center fielder like Patterson, wasn’t rushed as much when he finally reached the Cubs in 2007 after several years of countdowns to his arrival. But a slashing, .300-hitting style and a perceived hustling, winning attitude that lit up Triple-A vanished via a rusty-gate swing in the majors. It was as if the light switch was turned off each time Pie walked through the gate into Wrigley Field. Interestingly, the first team post-Chicago for whom Pie played was the Baltimore Orioles — just like Patterson — which has become kind of dumping ground for failed Cubs.

The overall problem is the Cubs simply don’t know how to properly handle position-player prospects, hence they’ve produced so few of them. Management sees a prospect with four or five tools and puts all their hopes in the kid. The organization is not run where three or four position-player prospects come up around the same time, and the advance billing is spread around equally. Not one player is regarded as the savior.

That’s how the Twins and Braves of recent vintage (and the Astros and Expos years ago) re-stocked their big-league rosters.  A small wave of players came up together and all were expected to claim big-league jobs without brass bands blaring and stacks of press clippings accumulating.

Too bad the Cubs lineup is overloaded with veterans with no-cut contracts. The Cubs do have other legitimate position-position player prospects, most more advanced than Castro, like third baseman Josh Vitters and outfielder Tyler Colvin. Center fielder Brett Jackson has potential. If the team was in a rebuilding mode and had a slew of positions available in camp, maybe we’d see a Twins-like wave wash up into the lineup. But that won’t happen as the Cubs are under pressure to win now, because they haven’t won all of our yesterdays.

Starlin Castro may be the next great shortstop. But he’d be better served if he came quietly to Fitch Park to train with all the other minor leaguers in a couple of weeks, preparing for maybe Daytona, not Tennessee or Triple-A Iowa or even an outside chance at the Cubs themselves. Better he spend one day more than needed in the minors than one less.

The process is an endless loop in Cubs history, threatening to snap up yet another kid who deserves a chance at the Show without the world of expectations on his shoulders.


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  1. collapse expand

    This is really thought-provoking! How many young prospects who are setting the world on fire in the minors are brought up just to fizzle out after a handful of at-bats? I’ve heard it said before (especially of the young Dominican players) that they are bred to get to the majors through power. Unfortunately, the fundamentals seem to suffer. The Majors is not the place to practice fundamentals, is it? I agree that great young talents like Castro need to hone their baseball skills before walking through the gates of Wrigley Field. I think savvy fans would prefer to see the Cubs take their time with these kids and give them every chance to succeed at the highest level. However, the pressure cooker gets more intense with each passing year without a ring.

    • collapse expand

      In the case of Castro, the Cubs have to take extra care. Latin players face an extra learning curve beyond refining baseball skills in adjusting to U.S. culture. They go a long way in learning English; we don’t meet them halfway by mastering Spanish. So they don’t need the pressure of expectations and being rushed to the majors.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Absolutely, George. That same comparison has been made with Koseke Fukudome when he had problems the second half of the 2008 season –He was adapting to a new culture, new language, etc. and it took its toll. And Koseke was a seasoned veteran, not a kid in the minors! Hopefully, the Cubs will do the right thing by Castro.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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