Castro is learning to drive the ball, but the best way to learn is without pressure to perform.
Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro has 110 hits this season, having played 84 of the team's 86 games. Of those 110 hits, 31 have come in the leadoff role, 34 during contests in which Castro batted second and 39 while the first-time All-Star was batting third.
That may seem a fair distribution. It is not. Castro has batted third some 41 times as of Monday, and after an 0-for-5 performance on Independence Day, he needs to be liberated from the pressure cooker of that spot at the heart of the Cubs' batting order. His hits in that slot have come in 183 plate appearances.
Batting from the top of the lineup, Castro has 185 plate appearances and 65 hits, or 26 more than he has in two fewer plate appearances batting third. From the top two spots in the order, he has 16 strikeouts against nine walks; he has 26 whiffs facing six walks. Not even power has come to Castro batting third: He has 17 extra-base hits in the first and second spots in the lineup, and only 14 when batting third.
The Cubs continue to bat Castro third because he is the face of the franchise at the moment. They lack a true fit for the role as Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena appear to be fifth-slot guys at this stage and Alfonso Soriano and Geovany Soto may never see the middle of a batting order again. Manager Mike Quade probably figures Castro gives him as good a chance as any to win every day.
Here is the big problem: The Chicago Cubs' goal is not to win every day. Not even close. As is the case for any non-contender, player development, talent evaluation and astutely trading assets without long-term utility must be the focal point for the team from here onward. Specifically, six players on the 2011 Cubs matter: Castro, Matt Garza, Geovany Soto, Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall and Andrew Cashner. Everything Quade and general manager Jim Hendry do for the remainder of the season must have as its primary objective fostering the growth of those six players.
Where should Castro bat for the Cubs going forward?
Castro is not growing while batting third. He clearly presses, his swing lengthens and he somehow expands his strike zone even farther than usual. The failure will sooner or later affect his confidence, and even if it did not, he would be the only third hitter in the game with no demonstrable power whatsoever. While Castro may develop some real power someday, he has virtually none right now and batting third only encourages bad habits as he tries to generate power by looping upward on the ball.
Part of the problem is the continued insistence on the part of the Cubs that Darwin Barney bat second. Quade and Hendry seem to have put Barney on par with Castro, or at least in his league, in terms of franchise priority. They apparently view him as a long-term regular, and because he is small and young, they have naturally lofted him into a table-setter's role. Scouting reports and Barney's career .317 OBP (he had a slightly better .335 mark in the minor leagues) agree: That is a poor decision. Barney will never hit higher than seventh on a contending club, so there is no value in sacrificing Castro's development at the altar of Barney's comfort.
Lineup optimization is a hotly-debated issue in both conventional and advanced baseball circles. In general, the consensus holds: Batting order does not matter much. That may be true when it comes to wins and losses. But when it comes to 21-year-old franchise cornerstones, everything matters.