After two consecutive All-Star seasons, Starlin Castro's production drastically decreased in 2013. Because of his struggles, Castro has been the topic of much criticism of late.
Though he is signed through 2019 with a team option in 2020, Castro's future with the Cubs may be in jeopardy due to the team's arsenal of young infielders in the minors. Ranked as the No. 7 overall prospect for 2014 by MLB.com, shortstop Javier Baez could overtake Starlin Castro's job in the future. However, Castro's future lies in his own hands.
As Phil Rogers of MLB.com reported on Thursday, Castro's job is safe while the team develops their prospects. Among the possible options mentioned by Rogers is moving the shortstop to third base, but that seems rather unlikely with both Mike Olt and Kris Bryant coming up in the near future at the hot corner.
Rogers also mentioned a possible move to the outfield for some of their infield prospects—much like they did with Junior Lake—but the Cubs also have multiple outfield prospects as well, such as Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.
Castro must improve in 2014, and in many ways. For example, his .284 on-base percentage last year was only one point better than his batting average in 2012.
Here are the four most important aspects that Castro must improve upon this season.
Note: All statistics courtesty of Baseball-Reference.com
Despite 705 plate appearances in 2013, Castro only drew a walk 30 times. In 2010, Castro walked 29 times in 506 at-bats, and it's evident that he needs to be more selective at the plate.
His walk percentage was a career-low 4.3 percent last season, down nearly an entire point from 2012.
Perhaps the fact that Castro is working with his third hitting coach in three seasons has negatively impacted his performance at the plate. Hopefully for him, new hitting coach Bill Mueller will help to bring improvement to his game at the plate in 2014.
Despite having 46 more stolen-base opportunities in 2013 than in 2012, Castro only attempted 16 steals the entire season compared to 38 in 2012.
This could be attributed to managerial decisions, as the Cubs attempted 44 less stolen bases in 2013 than in the previous year.
A 2009 scouting report from BBProspectReport.com stated that his "power, speed and arm will be game-changing major league tools." His power isn't extreme (37 home runs in four seasons), but his arm is certainly a great weapon. Now, he must utilize his speed properly.
First, it must be said that Castro increased his fielding percentage while decreasing his error percentage in 2013. However, it's still not good enough. Castro committed 22 errors in 2013, which lead the team by 12.
Castro has led the team in scoring in all four of his seasons in the majors. He also has committed more than 20 errors in all four seasons. No other Cub has committed more than 20 errors since Ronny Cedeno committed 25 of them in 2006.
Many were hoping that being under the guidance of manager Dale Sveum would be a large benefit for Castro. After all, Sveum played 442 of his 728 career games at shortstop.
However, that proved to be untrue. Perhaps the added pressure to perform due to competition from prospect Javier Baez will be exactly what Castro needs.
As mentioned earlier, the fact that Castro is under pressure and facing competition may bode well for him. It's possible that Castro's lucrative $60 million deal negatively affected his mentality, but he must not allow that to affect his game.
Castro has been benched multiple times already in his four seasons. Former manager Mike Quade benched him in August of 2011 after multiple mental lapses were caught on television including an incident in which Castro's back was turned to home plate as a pitch was being delivered.
It wasn't the last time that his lack of mental prowess earned him a spot on the pine, either.
At the end of the 2013 season, Dale Sveum sent the fourth-year shortstop to the bench in a game against the Cardinals. After fielding a shallow pop-up in left field, Castro lowered his head and held onto the ball. Jon Jay of the Cardinals, who was standing on third base at the time, took advantage of Castro's lapse and scored.
Castro was immediately benched by Sveum.
If he wants to keep his job, Castro cannot continue to allow such mental gaffes. He will, without a doubt, be under pressure from Baez, whose instincts were described as "incredible" by Hays Carlyon of the Florida Times-Union.
Follow Jason Parini on Twitter: @JasonPariniBR