Monday, August 25, 2014

Castro and Rizzo Rebounding

Castro and Rizzo are enjoying big bounce back years after disappointing 2013s
Baseball fans have been spoiled by the recent, immediate success of the sport's numerous young stars. With so many guys showing up and setting the world on fire right away--Buster Posey, Jose Abreu, Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Yasiel Puig, etc.--the bar has been raised for how top prospects are expected to perform once they reach the big leagues.

What's more common is for young players to experience ups and downs, deal with the growing pains that are a natural part of the development process. The league adjusts to players, exploiting their holes and weaknesses, forcing the players to make their own adjustments that ultimately help them become better ballplayers. They're supposed to make mistakes, learn on the job through trial and error. They're supposed to fail. Just look what's happened to Xander Bogaerts, Gregory Polanco, and Kelton Wong this year. Does anybody doubt that their futures are still incredibly bright?

The Chicago Cubs recently experienced these issues with two of their most promising young position players. In 2012 both Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo were 22 years old, hailed as an up-and-coming tandem of stars that was supposed to help turn their struggling franchise around. Castro made his second straight All-Star team that year, batting .283/.323/.430 with a career-high 14 home runs and 25 steals while playing solidly above average shortstop. Worth somewhere between 3 and 3.5 WAR that year, he was easily a top-10 shortstop overall and one of the five best in the National League.

Rizzo, in his first season with Chicago after being traded by San Diego that January, started the year in Triple-A but was in the majors by the end of June and made an immediate impact, slugging four home runs in his first ten games and winning NL Rookie of the Month honors for July. Entrenched as the Cubs' everyday first baseman, he played well the rest of the way, finishing the year with a .285/.342/.463 slash line. He displayed good power as well, clubbing 15 doubles and 15 homers to go along with 48 RBI in roughly half a season (87 games).

Both appeared to be cornerstones of a rebuilding Cubs team that dropped 101 games in 2012 but had its eyes set on the future. Chicago improved marginally the following year, losing 96 games, but did so without much help from Castro and Rizzo. Castro bottomed out, flailing at the plate (hitting just .245/.284/.347 with a measly 72 OPS+) and regressing in the field, resulting in a sub-replacement level season.

Rizzo, despite once again showing good power (40 doubles, 23 dingers) and patience (76 walks), was also a disappointment. He batted only .233/.323/.419--roughly league average production when adjusted for league and park--and struck out 127 times in his first full season. He and Castro had been expected to improve, but instead appeared to take significant steps back.

This year both were selected to the NL All-Star team and appear to have gotten themselves back on track. Rizzo's emerged as one of the sport's top sluggers, with his 29 long balls just three shy of Giancarlo Stanton for the league lead. He's more than just a power hitter though, as his robust .278/.376/.510 batting line has made him one of the Senior Circuit's ten best hitters this summer, which is also evident in his high standing on many of the league's leaderboards.

Castro has also returned to form at the dish, with his .284/.333/.429 slash line nearly a dead ringer for his 2012 stats. He's one home run away from his personal best and needs only two more walks to tie his previous high. His defense has held steady compared to last year and he's all but abandoned his running game (four steals in seven attempts), but at least he's back to being one of the better-hitting shortstops in baseball.

The Cubs, who have improved again this year and can count on more hitting talent arriving shortly, have to be encouraged by these recent signs of progress. Castro and Rizzo are All-Star caliber players expected to be cornerstones of the organization's next postseason contender, which could be ready as soon as next year. For the Cubs to reach their full potential, Castro and Rizzo have to reach theirs, and based on their performance this year they appear to be doing just that.

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