Commentary

Phenom makes some rookie mistakes

Starlin Castro is cheered, then booed in Wrigley debut after committing three errors

Updated: May 11, 2010, 12:59 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Geovany Soto, who knows something about the highs and lows of being a young Cub phenom, thinks very highly of Starlin Castro. But he doesn't expect perfection. Good thing.

"I think he's the real deal," Soto said. "Yes, he's going to make mistake, errors. He's young, everybody's been there."

Castro was there Monday night, looking more like Ronny Cedeno than Derek Jeter.

[+] EnlargeStarlin Castro
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastCubs rookie shortstop Starlin Castro slips on the grass on an infield single by Florida's Cameron Maybin.

After a wildly successful road debut, Castro proved he really is a Cub, if you go by historical standards.

Castro heard a mix of boos and cheers at Wrigley in his home debut, making three errors. The third, his only fielding error, was the worst. It came in the eighth on a Hanley Ramirez grounder and after it, he nonchalantly jogged after the ball, allowing Ramirez to take second. Ramirez would've scored on Jorge Cantu's single, if not for an Alfonso Soriano throw home. The Cubs lost 4-2, falling to 14-19 in front of a disgruntled crowd.

It was as if the Baseball Gods slapped his glove and said: It ain't all home runs and standing O's. Sometimes you get a postgame earful from a grumpy Lou Piniella.

"He learned a few things tonight. We just had a talk with him upstairs," Piniella said. "You've got to go get the ball if you don't catch it. You just can't let it lay there."

With the team coming off a 1-5 road trip, and Castro's six-RBI game providing the only win, Castro's home debut was the story. He held court with reporters on the field before the game, as his teammates and manager answered a few questions about him. For all but maybe a dozen nonuniformed personnel at Wrigley, it would be the first time we saw Castro in the flesh.

As encores go, it wasn't much. But it's early. A few bad throws should be expected. When I talked to his Double-A manager Bill Dancy just after Castro was called up Friday, he told me the 20-year-old's only real weakness was a tendency to rush his throws.

With the Cubs losing again, falling deeper into a spring funk, the talk will be that the Cubs rushed Castro, that it was a panic move. But it's still not true. Castro should have room to grow. Unfortunately that just can't be the case in a city that lives and dies with the Cubs.

Castro seemed unmoved by his bad game afterward, and even pulled a veteran move by initially leaving his locker when the media surrounded it. He said the third error was a "rookie mistake" and that he wasn't jittery about making his first game at Wrigley.

"I'm not nervous," he said.

Castro got the loudest applause of the game for his first at-bat Monday, which wasn't much given the crowd and the weather. With runners on first and second and one out, Castro swung at the first pitch and grounded into a fielder's choice, beating the double-play throw to first.

And he got mild applause for that, which was kind of odd. Castro also had a welcome news conference in foul territory before the game. Don't count on that happening again this season either.

Castro had a throwing error in the top of the third, with his throw sailing a bit wide of Derrek Lee. He had another throwing error in the sixth on a high throw to Lee. That one earned him some boos as Ted Lilly was still holding a no-hitter, which was broken up that inning as Chris Coghlan laced an RBI single to left, scoring Brett Carroll. His third error was fielding, and after the ball got by him, he jogged to it. He'll hear about that one. (Some fans started chanting, "Let's go Blackhawks" afterward, indicating they think the season's over.)

At the plate, he went 0-for-2 with two walks, ending his three-game hitting streak.

Like a lot of young Latin American players, Castro didn't get a lot of hype coming into the system, but it's been a wild ride ever since. Castro's anonymity expired when he went 4-for-4 in the Florida State League All-Star Game last year.

"Who could've guessed that he'd be doing that 19?" Cubs vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita said.

Next thing you know, he's in the Futures Game and playing at Double-A. By the time the Dominican Winter League rolled around, Moises Alou was asking the Cubs if Castro could play for his team, Leones del Escogido, which plays in the capital, Santo Domingo.

"He had never played in front of his family, so we let him play for a couple weeks before we shut him down," Fleita said. "What a cool thing."

He showed enough in spring training -- he hit .423 before being sent to the minor league camp -- to make the team, but Fleita said the organization wanted him to return to Tennessee, where he ended the season. He was dominating the league for a first-place team, hitting .376 with 14 extra-base hits and 20 RBIs in just 26 games.

"What more could he do?" Fleita said, who then softened expectations. "Deep down inside, we figured if he hits .240 and makes all the plays, really, that's all we can ask."

Surely, they will ask Castro to continue his pregame infield work for a while. One game, good or bad, doesn't define Castro's promise.

"For him to be 20-year-old and doing what he's doing, showing the tools and the maturity he's shown, it shows you a lot about the kid," Soto said pregame.

The Cubs did their research to make sure they weren't rushing him by historical standards. Castro had 1,098 plate appearances going back to 2007, when he played in the Dominican Summer League as a 17-year-old, according to Baseball-Reference.com. But only 243 have come in Double-A, where he hit .332 in parts of two seasons.

The Cubs compiled comparable minor league numbers for All-Star caliber shortstops, from Rafael Furcal (1,118 plate appearances), Edgar Renteria (1,778) to guys like Ozzie Smith (333 in one season) and Alan Trammell (720), to see if there was historical precedent to bringing a guy up so quickly.

"We looked at all of that," Fleita said. "We went way back."

Soriano offered to house Castro and Soto said he will try to mentor Castro and keep him focused, much like Henry Blanco and the pitching staff did for him in 1998. Soriano said he was waiting until they left the park to give Castro a pep talk. He doesn't buy that Castro wasn't nervous.

"It's part of the game," Soriano said. "He's very good at defense, but I think he was a little nervous in his first game in Chicago. It's normal. I had the same game my first game in New York. I understand him. That's a dream every baseball player has, to be in the big leagues. At his age, 20 years old, to be in the big leagues, he can be a little nervous."

In Castro's pregame presser, every reporter, every camera, every recorder was thrust near his face, as first-base coach Ivan DeJesus translated, and in some cases simply answered, questions.

"You're not oblivious to what's happening," Soto said, harking back to his rookie of the year campaign in 2008. "You know what's going on; you know if you're going good."

And even with the language barrier protecting him from most of the hype, Castro will know he's going well. On Monday, a reporter asked him what it's like to be the future of the team. Good, he said in Spanish, smiling awkwardly.

Castro was tapped on the shoulder near the end of his feel-good pregame session with the press, and was told there was a hitters' meeting in the players' lounge. It took him a second to process the information, and without a word, he moved away from the pack, ran down the dugout steps and through the tunnel to the clubhouse, just another rookie trying to be on time when everyone expects him to be early.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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