Why the Cubs should move Starlin Castro to the OF

23 Nov
Chicago Cubs shortstop prospect Starlin Castro.

Starlin Castro as a prospect

Most people, particularly in the media, love Starlin Castro. While some even dubiously proclaim Castro as the next Ernie Banks, count me as someone who’s not quite as impressed with Castro. While Castro accomplished an impressive feat in ringing up 207 hits in 2011, he needed 674 at-bats (the second-highest in the majors) to do so. In addition, Castro has nowhere near Banks’ power: Castro hit 13 home runs in his first 1137 at-bats while Banks hit 21 home runs in 509 fewer at-bats than Castro. Could Castro develop power later in his career, as some hope? Possibly, though history shows power doesn’t usually develop later unless steroids is involved.
The lack of power isn’t a real concern. But Castro’s iron glove and wild arm is. The 21-year-old Dominican led the majors in 2011 with an amazing 29 errors, proving that his 27 errors in 2010 (second-worst in MLB) was no fluke. FanGraphs posted Castro’s UZR (an advanced fielding metric that estimates a fielder’s defensive contribution compared to a league-average fielder) as -8.7, second-worst in the majors among regular shortstops. His defensive liabilities offset some of his offensive contributions.

Merely accepting Castro’s defensive limitations should not be an option. The question is: what can the Cubs do then?

What to do with Castro?

Some have bandied the idea of trading Castro. It’s not a bad idea. If everyone else is enamored with Castro, why not trade him while his value is sky high and get a bunch of top prospects? After all, the Cubs need help at a lot of positions and you could fill several of those voids with one trade. As the Chicago Tribune reminded, the Rays got several exciting prospects and a major-league defensive contributor when they sent Matt Garza to the Cubs, and the Royals got several top prospects and a major-league defensive contributor when they traded Zach Greinke. Just don’t trade Castro for a couple middle-tier prospects. If Theo Epstein is like Tampa Bay’s shrewd GM Andrew Friedman, then he’ll require multiple highly significant prospects for Castro.

But Castro staying with the Cubs is probably the most likely scenario. Epstein has compared Castro’s defensive issues with an early Derek Jeter, implying that Castro too can eventually win five Gold Gloves as Jeter has. Epstein’s comments are puzzling since he, a sabermetrician, should know that sabermetrics clearly reveals Jeter to have performed well below average for nearly his entire career in baseball (or as one blogger succinctly wrote, “Derek Jeter is a crappy fielder“). Just this past summer, Jeter was dead-last in DRS (Defensive Runs Saved, a metric used to evaluate how many runs a player saved or hurt his team compared to an average player at the position) among regular shortstops (-18), worse than even Castro (-16). In 2010, the last year Jeter won a Gold Glove, he had the fourth-worst shortstop DRS at -13. While Jeter has earned his Gold Gloves for his reputation on some flashy plays, Baseball Prospectus’ James Click cautioned in an article entitled “Did Derek Jeter Deserve The Gold Glove” (the answer is no), “While spectacular effort is a joy to watch, it should not be confused with results.” As performance analysts know, Jeter isn’t even the best SS on his own team (that would be Alex Rodriguez).

Where should Castro play?

The Cubs could keep Castro at SS, but why put up with the defensive struggles when you can minimize it? This was an argument Click made about Jeter, stating that the Yankees should have moved Jeter to CF and put Rodriguez back at SS. While some suggest moving Castro to 3B, I suggest the Cubs remove him out of the infield completely and put him in the outfield.

On occasion, Castro shows a flair for the spectacular play but far too often fails to make the routine play. In general, moving a shortstop to 3B will slightly improve that player’s defensive contribution by 1.9 runs per year. However, it’s uncertain if a fielder as bad as Castro will see that slight improvement. Since Castro bungles grounders and slings wild throws from the shortstop position, it’s quite possible he will also bungle grounders and sling wild throws from the third base position. In fact, it could potentially be even uglier at third base when Castro also must charge bunts/slow rollers and then hurry a throw to 1B.

Moving Castro to the OF instead of 3B would limit damage because not all errors are equal. Outfield errors are rarely on dropping catchable fly balls but instead due to bad throws and bad fielding. Thus, outfield errors almost never turn sure outs into baserunners; rather, the baserunners already exist but they get an extra base or two on a bad throw or poor fielding of a grounder.

On the other hand, shortstop errors always turn routine outs into baserunners. Since baseball’s two most precious commodities are runs and outs, shortstop errors negatively affect both. Not only does the defense not reduce one of the offense’s 27 precious outs, but the offense now also has a runner on base that should not have been there, which in turn creates a higher likelihood for the offense to score runs (run expectancy is always higher with a man on base than with bases empty). Indeed, Castro’s DRS for 2011 was -16, again second-worst among all regular shortstops and far below the average shortstop, the Angels’ Erick Aybar. Baseball Prospectus has shown that moving a SS to LF improves the team’s defense by an average 4.8 runs per year. With Castro, this number would be higher.

So why not put Castro in CF, where his strong arm could be an asset? The main reason is that Tony Campana is a known commodity at CF as a strong defender with great speed and great range, two important qualities for CF. Replacing Soriano, with his marginal arm, with Castro in LF would be a better option defensively.

My suggested defensive changes

In 2011, the predominant Cubs defense, based on innings played, was (DRS/UZR in parentheses):

- 2B: Darwin Barney (-4/+5.1)
– SS: Starlin Castro (-16/-8.7)
– LF: Alfonso Soriano (-5/+3.4)
– CF: Marlon Byrd (-2/+2.2)
– RF: Tyler Colvin (+3/+4.6)

Check out all those negative DRS figures. No wonder the 2011 Cubs defense was so awful.

One suggested defense for 2012 could be (2011 DRS/UZR in parentheses):

- 2B: DJ LeMahieu (+1/+0.8)
– SS: Darwin Barney (+1/+1.0)
– LF: Starlin Castro
– CF: Tony Campana (+2/+4.3)
– RF: Tyler Colvin (+3/+4.6)

The Cubs could then put Marlon Byrd (who was -2/+2.2 in CF in 2011) at 1B, resolving the issue of finding a first baseman. This suggestion would significantly upgrade its defense not only at SS but in many other positions on the field. In addition, learning a new position would be kept to a minimum (a minor adjustment for Barney; while Castro would be learning an entirely different position, it’s an easier position to learn, as would be the case for Byrd learning 1B). And what’s more, this suggestion would substantially upgrade the entire defense without having to trade away any prospects or spend one cent on a free agent.

Glaringly, the biggest problem with this suggested defense is that it puts Alfonso Soriano and his offensive production on the bench. But this would only be one problem for Epstein to resolve, compared to trying to resolve multiple glaring problems, any one of which could spell doom for the Cubs in a close game (the team was 25-28 in one-run games in 2011) or turn a close game into an uncontested loss.

Moving Castro to the OF may seem radical but when the status quo clearly isn’t working, why not put all options on the table? If the Cubs want to seriously compete for a championship, it cannot afford 25-30 errors at the most important position on the field.

Your turn

What do you think? Do you like the idea of moving Castro to the OF? Or do you think Castro should stay at SS and can someday improve from “near league worst” to “average”?

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One Response to “Why the Cubs should move Starlin Castro to the OF”

  1. ethanathome November 23, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    I think Castro should move to LF, just like you said. I like that Barney moves to SS, as he did in a few games and did well. Soriano and Ramirez and Pena, the top 3 home run hitters on the cubs, would be gone?

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