As Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro enters his third season of MLB action, he's doing so with a new manager, new general manager and expectations to improve upon being the NL's hits leader in 2011.
After an offseason that included his name being in the middle of sexual assault allegations, Castro is ready to put 2011 behind him and focus on being a better player for the Cubs in 2012.
With training camp in full swing and the Cubs eager to return to the top of the NL Central this season, Castro will be a big part of the success or failure they will have.
Here are four bold predictions for his second full season as the starter in the windy city.
New Cubs manager Dale Sveum wants to give Castro every opportunity to earn the third spot in the batting order. Without an established power hitter, sans Alfonso Soriano, Castro's 207 hits might be better served with guys on base.
Only hitting 10 home runs and driving in 66 runs in 2011, skeptics might think the Cubs need more offense from that spot to succeed. Behind him, they can plug in proven sluggers like Soriano or Geovany Soto, or go with an unproven talent like prospect Anthony Rizzo.
But the blueprint for success in this ball club will be predicated off scoring runs the hard way; the Cubs will use small ball and timely hitting to compete in the NL.
There is no reason to believe Castro won't continue to grow as a hitter and add a little more pop to his bat. If he does, those 207 hits could result in even more production from his spot in the lineup.
After making the All-Star game during his first season as the full-time starter, Castro proved he is in the upper echelon at his position.
Making the team for a second consecutive season won't be an easy task. The Miami Marlins now have Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez, and Troy Tulowitzki is widely considered the top offensive shortstop in all of baseball.
But as a result of batting third, I think the third-year pro will be right up there with those two and the rest of the National League. With more responsibility to carry the weight of the team, Castro will rise to the occasion and represent his club in the annual event.
In 2010, Castro committed 27 errors in 544 chances for a .950 fielding percentage. In 2011, that number increased to 29, but the chances also increased to 742 for a .961 fielding percentage.
After adding almost 200 chances to his numbers last season, Castro only added two errors. That number should go way down this season.
With a new manager and a new emphasis on defense and the fundamentals, Castro's natural speed and quickness will help harness a new-found focus on making the routine plays. Look for that 29 to come closer to 15 or so at the end of 2012.
After finalizing his salary number for 2012, Castro's value far exceeds what he makes on paper. Only making a little more than $560,000, the Cubs are getting a steal, much like the Texas Rangers have had with Elvis Andrus over the past two seasons.
When 2012 is over, the Cubs will likely look back and consider Castro as one of the biggest bargains in all of the big leagues. Not many teams can boast a league hits leader for under $1 million, so the Cubs should take advantage of having him under his true value while they still can.
In the NL Central, which is wide open after the departures of sluggers Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, anything can happen. Chicago would be wise to capitalize on the youth and new management they have to make a push for one of the five playoff spots, and Castro will be at the forefront of that movement.