Every few years baseball’s schedule rolls around and the New York Yankees play the Cubs. It’s a big deal, because, let’s be honest, it’s the Yankees. Twenty-seven World Series championships and a boatload of Hall of Famers in your history will make your arrival in town an event. But this time, there’s even more buzz.
There are plenty of connections between the two teams. Former Cubs player Joe Girardi is the Yankees manager. Longtime Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild is the Yankees pitching coach. Two Yankees are going to get their Cubs World Series rings. You might have forgotten that Adam Warren played for the Cubs last year, you will never forget that Aroldis Chapman did.
But for a lot of us–certainly not all of us–the Yankees visit to Wrigley Field this weekend is special for a completely different reason. The prodigal Cub, Starlin Castro returns for the first time since he was traded for Warren before the 2016 season. (Warren was also traded for Chapman, just to make things weirder.)
Starlin played six seasons for the Cubs (on five really bad teams). He was a three-time All-Star (hell, somebody had to be…no really, every team has to have one). His debut, on May 7, 2010 was one for the ages. He was 2-5 with a triple and a homer, and six RBI. Six. Nobody’s ever had more in his first game.
He led the National League in hits with 207 in 2011. He was 21 years old.
Starlin hit .300 on the nose as a rookie. He hit .307 in his second season. He was going to be a superstar.
And then he wasn’t. His average dropped 24 points in his third season, then 38 more in his fourth.
He rebounded with a good season in 2014. But his defense, which was always spotty got less and less reliable.
In 2015 the Cubs were ready to win, and ready to find a new spot for Starlin. Addison Russell spent the first half of the season learning second base on the fly, but not long after the July 31 trade deadline, when the Cubs tried, but could not find a new home for Castro via trade, they found a new spot for him on the bench.
On August 7, Joe Maddon announced that Russell was going to play shortstop, and it was not temporary.
What got lost by Cubs fans in the heat of an unexpected pennant race was that for all of his faults, there are a lot of fans who have an unconditional love for Starlin Castro.
I’m one of them. When the Cubs were at their worst, Starlin was all we had. He played every day. He loved to play. He could hit. In fact, his ability to get his bat on just about everything probably has limited his career success. Starlin can put bad pitches in play, often to his detriment.
Did Starlin forget how many outs there were from time to time? Sure he did. Did he lose focus in the field more than a big leaguer should? Yup. One Sunday night, ESPN’s Bobby Valentine went off on Castro for not paying attention between pitches, and, incredibly the cameras caught Starlin facing the outfield as a pitch was made. But for all of his faults, Starlin is fun to watch. He plays with flair. He has a great time. When he’s hot (like he is right now) he’s a sight to see at the plate. And so, what we hopefully all remember about Starlin’s time with the Cubs was what happened after he got benched on August 7, 2015.
Starlin didn’t pout. He didn’t bitch. He got to work. He showed up early for work and he learned second base in four days. On the day he was benched he was hitting .236/.274/.301./.575 It was awful.
From the day he first started at second base (August 11) through the rest of the season, he hit .353/.373/.588/.961. That’s not a typo. From August 11 to the end of the season, Starlin Castro was the best hitter in the National League. He struck out 18 times in 47 games. (He also walked four times–so, he didn’t turn into Robinson Cano.) He played a solid second base, more solid than his shortstop usually was.
The Cubs went 34-17 after he moved to second. He did a cool 360 when Jake Arrieta struck out Chase Utley to finish off his no-hitter at Dodger Stadium. He caught the line drive to end the Wild Card game win in Pissburgh. He put up an .833 OPS in the NLDS against the Cardinals. Starlin wasn’t along for the ride as the Cubs roared to relevance at the end of 2015 and into the playoffs, he was a huge part of it. All of Wrigley, including his own dugout, clapped along to his walk-up music.
Nobody really complained when the Cubs traded him away. They replaced him with Ben Zobrist, a far steadier and more versatile player, and all Zobrist did was earn World Series MVP. Javy Baez was ready to take on a bigger role, also, and that also meant moving Starlin made sense.
I’m glad he’s doing well with the Yankees. He was solid last year, he hit .270 and had a career high 21 homers. This year he’s ripping it up at .362/.402/.543/.945 and leads the American League with 38 hits.
The Cubs intend to welcome him back in style. They have a video tribute ready for him. I expect they’ll play his walk-up music and let the fans enjoy it one more time. My hope is that he gets a standing ovation.
He gave it everything he could for six years as a Cub. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was never boring. And, at times, it was pretty.
Despite all of the Cubs incredible success, and in spite of just how much fun they are to watch, part of me will always miss Starlin. He’s one of my all-time favorites. I love the guy, and I suspect a few of you do, too.
Welcome back, Starlin. It’s gonna be great to see you again.