By John Perrotto
Starlin Castro would gladly dissect his 2013 season if he could. The problem, though, is he can't. It has been a season like no other for the 23-year-old Chicago Cubs shortstop who hit a pothole on his way to superstardom.
"I've never had a bad year before, ever since I started playing baseball when I was a little boy," Castro said shaking his head. "It feels strange. It's tough to look at my stats. It's been very disappointing, very frustrating. I know I am better than that."
Through 157 games, Castro has a .243 batting average, .283 on-base percentage and .343 slugging percentage, numbers that aren't going to grow appreciably with four games left on the schedule. Coming into the season, Castro had compiled numbers of .297, .336 and .425 in those three categories in a little less than three full major-league seasons. He has 10 home runs and nine stolen bases in 2013, down from 14 and 25 last year, and his 126 strikeouts are easily a career high after he punched out 100 times in 2012.
The drop off is quite deep for a player who appeared in the All-Star Game the previous two seasons and signed a seven-year, $60.57-million extension that went into effect this season and keeps him under contract through 2019 with a club option for 2020.
The biggest knock on Castro in the past has been his inability to stay focused on the field. There was the infamous moment on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball in 2011 when the national television cameras caught him with his back to home plate as a pitch was being delivered.
From time to time, Cubs manager Dale Sveum has benched Castro for other mental lapses. Yet Sveum says this has been Castro's best season from an attention standpoint: "He drifts occasionally but his focus has been better."
While the perception of Castro around baseball and among fans is that he is flighty and doesn't always have his head in the game, the Cubs believe his poor 2013 season has stemmed from caring too much. "When he starts going bad, he tries to get it all back in one swing and that just puts him in a bigger hole," Sveum said. "He tends to put the weight of the world on his shoulders."
Which brings us to the Cubs' second-biggest disappointment this season, first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Like Castro, he is considered a cornerstone players in the Cubs' massive rebuilding plan that has yet to go very far in the two-year reign of team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, the whiz kid duo that helped the Boston Red Sox win World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. The Cubs are 65-93 this season after going 61-101 a year ago.
The Cubs signed Rizzo to a seven-year, $41-million contract extension early in the season that, like Castro's, carries through the 2019 season. The Cubs also hold player options for both 2020 and 2021. He has responded by hitting .230 with a .320 OBP and .414 SLG, and though his 22 home runs and 75 RBIs are team highs, they come for a team that ranks 27th among the 30 major-league clubs in runs scored. Rizzo set expectations much higher following a 2012 season when he had 23 homers and 62 RBIs in 70 games at Class AAA Iowa then hit .285/.342/.463 with 15 homers and 48 RBIs in 87 games with the Cubs.
The knock on Rizzo is the opposite of that on Castro. The feeling around the Cubs is the 24-year-old Rizzo is too laid back. There is a feeling he is too patient at the plate, lets too many hittable pitches pass by and does not play with a sense of urgency. Rizzo certainly didn't seem to have much urgency when asked about his 2013 season.
"I think you can take positives and learn something from any situation and that's what I plan on doing," said Rizzo, who then added that he really couldn't analyze his season until it was over.
Sveum, a hitting coach at heart, though a manager by job definition, lives in the Phoenix area in the offseason and has invited Rizzo to come to Mesa, Ariz., during the winter months and spend time working on his hitting at the Cubs' spring training complex.
"I'd be more than happy to have him but it's up to Anthony," Sveum said. "Some guys just want to get away from it all in the winter. Maybe that's how he'll feel. I'll leave it up to him."
Rizzo has yet to commit one way or the other and it may not make a difference. It is becoming increasingly clear Sveum may not return for a third season as manager next season and one of the reasons is the lack of progress made by Castro and Rizzo. It could fall to another manager and coaching staff to attempt to get the two cornerstones back on track and eventually form what the Cubs hopes is a powerhouse lineup in the future along with such highly touted prospects as third baseman Kris Bryant, shortstop Javier Baez and outfielders Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.
The Cubs can only hope the struggles of Castro and Rizzo are temporary and the rest of their prospects are for real, especially since they have clinched their first last-place finish in the National League Central since 2006. Ironically, the Cubs assured themselves of being cellar dwellers just one day after the Pittsburgh Pirates clinched their first playoff berth in 21 years with a 2-1 victory at Wrigley Field.
"I'm going to go home to the Dominican and work hard all winter and come back to spring training ready to go," Castro said. "I don't want to ever have another season like this again. This was a bad year for me, the team, everybody. I want next year to be a good year."
Then again, the Cubs are perpetually hoping next year is a good year. They haven't been to the postseason since 2008 and the World Series since 1945, and haven't won a Fall Classic since 1908.
"Anytime you're losing you're not going to enjoy it, I don't care who you are," Sveum said. "Who really knows what kind of people you have? You hope you have people who get tired of losing and appreciate winning and can turn it around the way the Pirates have. The Pirates have done a nice job there in the draft for the last three, four, five years. When you see what the Pirates have done, you know that it's not necessarily that far off for us. That's the message we're trying to send."
Castro and Rizzo never received it this year.
John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.