Locked-In Starlin Castro, Healthy Yankees Lineup Teasing Explosive Potential

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 8, 2016

Starlin Castro has certainly done his part to heat up the Yankees offense, but he hasn't worked alone.
Starlin Castro has certainly done his part to heat up the Yankees offense, but he hasn't worked alone.Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

It appears that all the New York Yankees offense needed to get going this season was a one-game warm-up. Also, somebody other than Dallas Keuchel on the mound for the opposition.

And now that these two demands have been met, we're seeing just what these Bronx Bombers are capable of.

After Keuchel, the reigning American League Cy Young winner, silenced them in their opener Tuesday, the Yankees' bats woke up in a big way in the final two games of their series against the Houston Astros. A 17-hit parade led to a 16-6 win Wednesday, and the Yankees cranked out 12 more hits in an 8-5 win Thursday.

As is usually the case whenever there's an offensive outburst like this, the question isn't who's been hitting. It's who hasn't been hitting.

Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran both went deep Wednesday. Teixeira and Brian McCann went deep Thursday. Those two and Didi Gregorius all have four hits in their last eight at-bats. Jacoby Ellsbury has three hits in his last 10 at-bats. After going hitless to start the season, Alex Rodriguez broke through with a pair of hits Thursday.

But while that's an awful lot of heat, nobody is as hot as Starlin Castro. The Yankees' new second baseman was the big star in Wednesday's rout, tallying four hits and picking up three of his five RBI on his first home run of 2016. On Thursday, he launched his second:

Add in the two-run double that Castro had in the Yankees' opener, and he now has seven hits in 12 at-bats with two home runs and eight RBI. With numbers like those, all the jokes on Twitter about his inevitable Yankeeography almost have to be taken seriously.

This is the best the Yankees could have hoped for after bringing Castro aboard in a classic upside-play trade with the Chicago Cubs in December. And though his production has resembled a roller coaster throughout his career, it's hard to ignore that he's actually been raking for a while now.

After getting off to a slow start, Castro finished 2015 by hitting .353 with a .968 OPS over the final six weeks of the season. Then came a .367 average and a .944 OPS this spring. This brings us to his current state, which Beltran best characterized Wednesday.

“Starlin Castro is playing tee-ball right now,” he told Anthony Rieber of Newsday.

There are reasons for Castro's turnaround. One is that the three-time All-Star obviously has plenty of underlying talent. And even before Castro told Brendan Kuty of NJ Advance Media all about it in March, Matt Goldman of Beyond the Box Score noticed that Castro had traded his wide-open stance in the box for a closed stance. 

It's always a good sign whenever a hot streak from a talented player can be traced back to a tangible adjustment. At best, it means said hot streak may have lasting power. At worst, it means it's not so surprising.

And while we're on the topic of not being surprised, we should also acknowledge it's not the biggest shocker to see the entire Yankees lineup lighting it up.

Mark Teixeira has picked up where he left off last year.
Mark Teixeira has picked up where he left off last year.Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

"This is what we're capable of," Teixeira said after Wednesday's rout, per Bryan Hoch of MLB.com. "You're not going to do that every night, especially against a good team, but when we have the entire lineup that's clicking, you're going to have a couple of nights like this, and they feel good."

Indeed. The Yankees did score more runs than any other team except the all-powerful (literally) Toronto Blue Jays last year, after all. And with Castro taking Stephen Drew's place at second base, there's no denying the collective star power of a starting nine that looks like this:

  1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
  2. Brett Gardner, LF
  3. Alex Rodriguez, DH
  4. Mark Teixeira, 1B
  5. Brian McCann, C
  6. Carlos Beltran, RF
  7. Chase Headley, 3B
  8. Starlin Castro, 2B
  9. Didi Gregorius, SS

Manager Joe Girardi must feel good every time he writes down these names. A-Rod (fingers crossed), Teixeira and Beltran might be future Hall of Famers. Ellsbury, Gardner, McCann and Castro have been All-Stars. Headley hasn't, but he was an MVP candidate once. Only Gregorius doesn't have accolades to his name, but that will change if he keeps hitting like he has been since last year's All-Star break.

And if all goes well, this lineup will be one of the most productive offenses in the American League. According to Baseball Prospectus, only the Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox are projected for more runs. FanGraphs isn't as optimistic, but its projections still peg the Yankees as having one of the top 10 offenses in Major League Baseball.

That "if all goes well" part, however, is equal parts caveat and elephant in the room. 

It's a good sign that Castro's hot hitting can be traced back to a tangible adjustment, but that doesn't necessarily free him from his history. His high highs traditionally come with low lows. And though the Yankees offense was mostly good in 2015, there's no forgetting how much it all fell apart in the end.

After collectively OPS'ing .766 through the season's first four months, the Yankees offense managed just a .705 OPS down the stretch. Age and durability (or lack thereof) were the culprits. Ellsbury and Gardner struggled to recover from nagging injuries. Teixeira was lost to a broken leg. Rodriguez and McCann stayed healthy, but both hit a wall.

The same fate could befall the Yankees this season. As Jon Tayler wrote at SI.com, it's "hard not to be concerned about the durability and productivity of a lineup in which Castro and Gregorius are the only hitters under 30." And with players like Ellsbury, Teixeira, Gardner and Beltran, the Yankees also have some injury proneness in their lineup.

For now, though, the Yankees should be too distracted by what's going right in the present to worry about what could go wrong in the future. They came into the year needing their offense to be as good in reality as it looked on paper. And with Castro fitting in so well with what was already there, they're clearly getting their wish.

With better luck than they had in 2015, it'll stay that way.

  

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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