Chicago Cubs: Can Starlin Castro Become NL's Best Shortstop in 2012?

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Chicago Cubs: Can Starlin Castro Become NL's Best Shortstop in 2012?
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After leading the National League in hits last season, consider Starlin Castro the interim title-holder of the "Best Shortstop in the National League."

I say interim because injuries can cost the cream of the crop full seasons, skewing the numbers.

This summer the real title will be back up for grabs in a competition that not even WrestleMania could script.

If Michael Buffer introduced the candidates, he'd start off with Hanley Ramirez in one corner, joined by Miami Marlins-teammate Jose Reyes, Colorado Rockie Troy Tulowitzki and Castro.

Ramirez, Reyes and Tulowitzki all missed time last year due to injuries. Ramirez played in just 92 games. Reyes was limited to 126 while Tulowitzki missed 19 games. Castro had just four days off all year.

Ramirez is the first one eliminated from the title chase, as Reyes bumps him from shortstop to third base this season. Ramirez boasts 30-30 potential with a career .306 average. Depending how he adjusts to his position move, his stats could fluctuate this season. He was unhappy with the move at first, and a lack of focus could derail him from returning to his prime form.

Looking at numbers from last season, Castro scored 91 times while driving in 66 with 10 home runs. He batted .307 and stole 22 bases. He certainly met expectations, perhaps even sooner than many felt like he would, in just his second season.

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Reyes hit .337 for the Mets last season scoring 101 runs and hitting seven home runs with 44 RBIs. A potential MVP-caliber season was erased by injuries.

Tulowitzki registered 30 home runs with 105 RBIs, but had 40 fewer hits than Castro, and a DL stint was a roadblock in his season in 2011.

Castro inherits the No. 3 spot in the batting order with even higher expectations for 2012. Is this the season that Castro stands at the top rope and holds the official title belt over his head?

Looking closer into 2011, it was clear that Castro lacked the consistent focus required for an elite shortstop at the major league level. Manager Dale Sveum's presence will likely cut into the times that Castro stands at short this season wondering what kind of cotton candy is being sold in the fourth row.

If Castro wants to be the best, he must cut down on his 29 errors last season. Tulowitzki's six errors in 684 chances is the pinnacle of shortstop defense. Castro was just 10th amongst NL shortstops in fielding percentage. Expect him to cut that total by at least 10 this year.

Castro struck out 96 times compared to just 35 walks. His aggressive nature results in hits, but he must develop more patience and increase his .341 OBP. Tulowitzki is at .372 while Reyes was .384. And at second glance, are more hits better?

Perhaps Castro's aggressive approach was the reason for 207 hits. But how much impact did those hits have?

The 22 year old had 291 total bases, while Tulowitzki, in over 100 fewer plate appearances, had 292. That shows that Tulowitzki is doing more with his hits than Castro. In 30 more games, Castro only had one more extra-base hit than Reyes' 54.

Doing more damage with his hits is imperative for Castro this season. He won't see many pitches to hit early in the year as teams dare No. 4 hitter Bryan LaHair to beat them. He's also hitting behind Darwin Barney, who must prove that last year's five month slump after April was just a mirage. That means cutting down on his 20 double-plays last season.

Yes, Castro will improve. His home runs will likely increase along with RBIs as he is hitting lower in the order this season. Reyes may decline with his new contract and hamstring injuries hampering his speed.

But Tulowitzki is still the premier shortstop in not only the National League, but all of baseball.

But as Castro improves, you never know. Maybe he just has to wait till next year.

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