ZEBULON, N.C.—When you think of 19-year-olds playing in the Southern League, the first name that comes to mind is Mississippi’s Jason Heyward, though he just turned 20. The second is probably Jacksonville’s Mike Stanton. The third? Well, there aren’t too many options, but it should be Tennessee’s Starlin Castro.
Just a year removed from playing 51 games in the Rookie-level Arizona League, Castro made his 2009 debut for high Class A Daytona (Florida State) and drew rave reviews. In 96 games for the Cubs, the 2006 international signee out of the Dominican Republic hit .302/.340/.391 with 17 doubles, three home runs and 35 RBIs. He also stole 22 bases in 33 tries. Castro’s rapid ascension through the minor league ranks surprised many, including himself.
"I was surprised when I saw my name on the roster to go to Daytona; I thought I was going to Peoria," Castro said in translation through Smokies teammate Robinson Chirinos. "After that, I expected to be in Daytona all year. But I did think I would move fast because I’ve worked so hard."
Castro has responded well to the promotion, hitting .280/.349/.347 with five doubles in 20 games for Double-A Tennessee. Splitting time between five spots in the order—including six games at leadoff, two in the three-hole and nine in the eight-hole—Castro has shown little sign of slowing down at the higher level. In a stretch from Aug. 20-24, Castro went 11-for-20 with four doubles. Overall in 433 at-bats this season, he’s batting .296/.340/.381, adding 24 steals in 35 attempts.
"It’s no different than years past, in the Dominican Republic or in the Arizona League," Castro said. "Wherever you go, baseball is baseball."
Though Castro—listed 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds but looking heavier than that—didn’t start on Wednesday night he did get into the game in the top of the ninth inning. After Ty Wright doubled to start the inning, Blake Lalli struck out swinging on a curveball in the dirt, but advanced to first on the dropped third strike. Tennessee manager Ryne Sandberg inserted Castro as a pinch-runner for Lalli. Two batters later, Castro showed his athletic ability, scoring easily from first on a two-bagger to the left-center gap by Russ Canzler.
Castro busted hard to third base but was able to cruise into home. His long strides and athleticism made rounding the bases look easy.
Castro stayed in the game as a defensive replacement in the bottom half of the ninth.
With Tennessee clinging to a two-run lead, Logan Parker popped an offspeed pitch down the left-field line. Castro read the ball going foul off the bat, but crashed into the wall trying to catch the ball just out of his reach.
"You can tell he loves to play the game," Tennessee hitting coach Tom Beyers said. "He plays with a reckless abandon and isn’t worried about what’s in front of him."
In the field, Castro flashes a strong arm and above-average range to go along with his steady hands. He projects as a shortstop in the future, but his path to the big leagues might go faster as a second baseman. Chicago has gotten little production from a revolving door at the position.
In the field, Castro is aggressive. At the plate, he uses control and discipline to his advantage. Through 20 Double-A games, Castro has walked eight times and struck out just four times. He works the count to his advantage, and gets pitches to hit.
"He uses the whole field, and he’s not intimidated by the pitching," Beyers said. "Usually young guys want to pull the ball so much, but he’s got a pretty good idea that he wants to work through the middle. He lets the ball come to him, and his at-bats are all competitive.
"The one thing I like about him—when he gets the ball in the strike zone, he puts a whack on it. Right now he’s a gap-to-gap hitter, and no one’s even talking about power. If he grows into it, then he does. That may be down the road, but we’re not worried about it."
Beyers said Castro has a unique package of tools offensively and couldn’t think of a good comparison for him. Castro said that he tried to model his game after Miguel Tejada, a fellow Dominican.
Chicago has been aggressive in promoting Castro, partly due to his comfort level with Sandberg and Beyers. Sandberg spent time with Castro in the Dominican Republic before last year, and Beyers worked with Castro in extended spring training before this season.
Those experiences helped forge strong relationships and a comfortable environment for the 19-year-old.
Despite his success and quick rise up the ladder, Castro said Sandberg has given him one important message: "Just worry about the minor leagues now, don’t worry about the big leagues yet. Work hard, play the game hard because you have a long way to go. If you focus, good things will happen."
And good things have happened for Castro. As he’s progressed, Castro has surpassed the glut of Chicago’s minor league middle infielders. Cubs 2008 second-round pick Ryan Flaherty, who played shortstop at Vanderbilt, has played second base for low Class A Peoria. Fellow Dominican Junior Lake, who also played shortstop for the AZL Cubs last year, has played the season in Peoria. Logan Watkins and Hak-Ju Lee are playing for short-season Boise. The only player standing in Castro’s way between Tennessee and Chicago is 2007 fourth-round pick Darwin Barney, a 23-year-old hitting .263/.303/.326 for Triple-A Iowa.
Castro said he’s going to heed Sandberg’s advice and not look to the future. Still, it’s hard to ignore the progress Castro has made in 2009. Just ask Beyers.
"Sometimes those 19-year-olds don’t want to hear that they’re young," he said. "They want to move, and he’s proving that."
• When the Braves’ Jason Heyward was hit by a pitch on Aug. 23, it looked like his bruised heel might keep him out of the remainder of the regular season. The 20-year-old starring for Double-A Mississippi missed a week of action, but returned to the Braves’ lineup last night. In his return, Heyward didn’t miss a beat. The top-ranked prospect in the minor leagues went 3-for-4 with two RBIs and a stolen base against West Tenn. Heyward’s heel injury ruled out a potential September big league call-up, but he’ll still have a chance to play for the Peoria Saguaros in the Arizona Fall League.
• Domonic Brown turns 22 tomorrow, but the Double-A Reading right fielder celebrated a day early. Brown went 2-for-4 last night against New Britain, as the 6-foot-5, 204-pounder has hit .298/.356/.496 in 30 games since his promotion from high Class A Clearwater. Though he is striking out slightly more, Brown’s power numbers have stayed constant, totaling seven doubles, four triples and three home runs.
• Though he hasn’t duplicated the 32-home run outburst of last year, Mark Trumbo has continued to rack up extra-base hits while trying his hand at a new defensive position. Trumbo went 3-for-4 last night against Northwest Arkansas, collecting his 34th double of the season. Trumbo has played in nearly every game for the Travelers, hitting .288/.329/.450 with 14 home runs in 131 games. While there were concerns about Trumbo’s defensive ability before the season, the Angels have tried him at a new position: outfield. In 30 August games, Trumbo played right field nine times.
• Prior to the season, there were questions about Red Sox outfielder Ryan Kalish’s ability to hit for power. After suffering a hamate injury in 2007, he hit just five home runs between two levels last year. Kalish has shown more power in 2009, blasting 24 doubles and 15 home runs between high Class A Salem and Double-A Portland. Last night, Kalish went 3-for-4 with a double, one run scored and two RBIs. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Kalish has a line-drive oriented swing with a gap-to-gap approach, though he has shown more loft in his swing this year than in previous seasons.