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A longtime minor league coach and manager before succeeding Lou Piniella last August, Quade was the skipper of Oakland's Double A Huntsville team in 1997 when a brash 23-year-old Dominican shortstop named Miguel Tejada showed up and was fast-tracked to the majors. "Miggy just loved to play the game," Quade says. "He was a year and change into [his major league career] and [A's manager] Art Howe wanted to give him a day off, but Miggy didn't want to sit because he was dead set on breaking Cal Ripken's record. That crazy son of a gun wasn't kidding at all, he was already thinking about breaking the record. The fire that burned inside Miggy, I see that inside of Starlin."
Tejada—whom Castro says was his boyhood idol—broke into the majors with Oakland late in 1997 and would win the American League MVP award five years later. "Miggy and Starlin, they're two completely different players." Quade says. "Miggy had power from the get-go. Starlin's power will come. Miggy was more advanced defensively. What they have in common is the desire and the willingness to learn. Playing that position, you have to be willing to learn."
Castro's education began on the ragged neighborhood fields of Monte Cristi, a coastal town of 25,000 situated on the northwest edge of the Dominican Republic. The oldest son of a fisherman and a housewife, Starlin—like so many others in his home country—started playing the game with a milk carton for a glove when he was seven. He remembers his father, Diogenes, waking up every morning at six to head for the boats docked off Monte Cristi. Asked what he'd be doing if he weren't in baseball, Starlin says, without a beat, "Fishing." Diogenes wanted his son to be a pitcher, but Starlin always knew he was destined to be a shortstop because, as a boy, he would "take ground balls all day, until the sun went down."
In the fall of 2006, Starlin, then 16, showed up with his uncle Manuel for a tryout at the Cubs' academy in Santiago. A scout named José Serra watched as the boy took grounders at shortstop. "He was so weak, he had nothing coming out of his arm," recalls Serra, "but he had a good arm action, loose and quick, and that was something." Serra saw something else when the boy took his cuts during a batting practice session. Nothing the boy hit reached the warning track, but "he was the only one who made contact on everything they threw to him—fastballs, changeups, sliders, everything," says Serra. "You don't see 16-year-olds who can do that." After the two-hour session Serra approached Manuel and asked what it would take to sign the boy. "He said $60,000, and I said how about $35,000?" recalls Serra. "He said no, but we could talk after he had another tryout a few days later with the Indians."
Driving from Santiago back home to San Pedro, Serra thought to himself, If the Indians see this kid, they're going to sign him. He called Manuel, and they agreed on a $45,000 signing bonus. When Starlin returned home that day, he told his father, "Now you can rest. No more fishing. I'll take care of the family now."
Castro was only 19 when, in 2009, he was promoted to Daytona of the Class A Florida State League, where "if he'd hit .225 and played steady defense, we'd have accepted it, knowing that he was just 19," says farm director Oneri Fleita. Instead, he emerged, seemingly overnight, as an offensive force. "Next thing you know, he hits .300, makes the All-Star team, makes the Futures Game. If anyone tells you they expected that, then that would be nonfactual."
In a report to the Cubs' front office that year, Buddy Bailey, Castro's manager at Daytona, wrote, "When [Castro] gets to the big leagues, the team he plays on will be a championship contender every year." Says Bailey now, "I've written that once before [about] another player, and that was Derek Jeter." The manager was part of the Cubs' discussion about what to do with Castro's aggressive plate approach. "We all thought he had the baseball savvy and mental makeup to make adjustments on his own," says Bailey. "So we said, 'Let's let him go.' Best decision the organization made."
Two players in the history of the game have hit .300 in their age 20 and 21 seasons while playing shortstop: Hall of Famer Arky Vaughan, who was 20 when he made his Pirates debut in 1932, and Alex Rodriguez, with the Mariners in the mid-1990s. Castro has a chance to be the third, though sabermatricians aren't the only ones who wonder whether Castro's numbers are sustainable if he doesn't hold back his swing (his average of 3.51 pitches per plate appearance ranked 175th at week's end) and improve his walk rate, which was the sixth lowest in the National League (one every 31 plate appearances). "His plate coverage and his ability to put balls in play over such a wide range, more than the 17 inches of the plate, is very unique, but I'm not convinced yet it's good," says Quade. "Eventually pitchers are going to challenge you, as they always do, on the outside two or three inches and the inside two or three inches. Yeah, every so often he'll reach out and hit a ball three or four inches off the plate to rightfield, and that'll be great. But I think in the long run, improved discipline is really going to help him."
The growing pains have come mostly in the field, where he made 27 errors last year and is, according to advanced fielding metrics, a below-average fielder. The Cubs, however, believe he has Gold Glove upside. "He's raw, but he gets to balls that we haven't seen anyone get to since Shawon Dunston," says general manager Jim Hendry. In December, Castro spent time in Santiago training with DeJesus and minor league infield coordinator Franklin Font. Every morning for two weeks they worked with him on lining up his shoulders toward the dugout when throwing to first and on quickening his first step toward ground balls. Castro's progression was quickly tested on Opening Day against the Pirates. "It's the very first play of the season, and he has a brutal play to his left that if it's last year, he doesn't make," says Quade. "I've just spent the whole spring telling everyone how much progress he's made, and I'm thinking, Please just make this play. And he does, and I just smile and think to myself, Damn, this kid is growing in front of our eyes."
The Cubs, who finished April two games under .500, were a fifth-place team last year despite a $144 million payroll. But they now have what few teams do: a young, elite player at a premium position. Once the game's most starlit position, shortstop has witnessed a recent dimming as onetime bulwarks such as Jeter and Tejada have aged. "We were talking on the team plane the other day that having a kid like Starlin helps you build this thing a little different now," says Hendry of an organization in transition under a new ownership group led by Tom Ricketts. "It's like back when [Ryne] Sandberg was playing second base [in the 1980s and '90s], it didn't matter if Gracie"—first baseman Mark Grace—"didn't hit 30 home runs at first. Now, with a shortstop that might hit 25 and .330, if you have a guy coming through your system that's a good player but not a power guy, you can live with that."