Starlin Castro is ready for the big leagues.
Never mind that he's only 19 years old. The shortstop has been on the fast track in the Cubs' Minor League organization since he first signed in October 2006. He played rookie ball in 2008, then jumped to high Class A this season, then Double-A, and now is competing in the Arizona Fall League. He's the youngest player in the AFL, but after one week of play, he's keeping pace with the big boys, and through Sunday, was hitting .500 (7-for-14). He went 3-for-5 in the AFL opener.
"He's one of those special players in baseball," said Franklin Font, the Cubs' Minor League infield coordinator.
Castro batted .311 in the Rookie League in 2008, and Font was among those who fought for the young infielder to begin the '09 season at high Class A Daytona, not the low Class A in Boise or Peoria. The Cubs would've been happy if Castro hit .250, .260. He batted .302, good for third in the Florida State League, even though he didn't finish the season there.
In July, Castro played for the World Team in the All-Star Futures Game, and didn't start but reached on an infield single, advanced on a wild pitch, and eventually scored the tying run. He was promoted to Double-A Tennessee in early August, where he hit .288 in 31 games. For the year, he batted .299 with 23 doubles, six triples, three homers, 28 stolen bases and 49 RBIs.
"I haven't had a player go through the system who has done what he's done," said Cubs player development director Oneri Fleita. "I think we would've been happy if he hit .250 in Daytona. He's certainly surpassed any expectations we've had. To finish at Double-A and get a chance to play in the [Southern League] playoffs -- and he contributed to them winning.
"It seems like it takes some guys a year before we see any gains. We're seeing gains in Castro weekly, monthly, if not daily. Who knows?"
Sitting in the HoHoKam Park dugout prior to a AFL game in Mesa last week, Castro admitted he still needs to work hard. Once the AFL is finished, he'll return home to Monte Cristy in the northern part of the Dominican Republic, and continue to play. His father, a fisherman, is ill, and Castro, the eldest of five children, has taken on the responsibility of being the family's provider.
"He told his father, 'You don't have to work any more. I'll take care of you,'" said Cubs Minor League catcher Welington Castillo of Castro. "To me, that will make him work harder every day. He has a reason to work hard to help his family. He's the man."
That's not uncommon, and not just for the kids from the Dominican, Fleita said.
"You see a lot of these young kids and they have a burden of a lot of things on their shoulders," Fleita said. "[Castro] has shown he can balance a lot of things that have been thrown at him."
Castro said his father made sacrifices to provide his son with shoes and a glove so he could pursue his dream of playing Major League Baseball. Because his father worked so hard, the son is trying to return the favor. Castro has one goal.
"I want to be the best shortstop in the Major Leagues," he said.
"Defensively, I think he's ready," said pitcher Andrew Cashner, the Cubs' No. 1 pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, who also is playing for the Mesa Solar Sox. "He can hit. He's still a little young and he has a little more growing into his body to do, and he'll get more power. He's a great kid, a great player.
"He saved me a lot this past season," Cashner said. "He made some special plays out there. I think it's more instincts for him. Everything is very natural."
Castro grew up idolizing Miguel Tejada, and now favors Hanley Ramirez. He has tremendous range and is very acrobatic, but the Cubs coaches have made sure he doesn't forget the importance of making the routine plays as well.
Font first saw Castro at the Cubs' Dominican facility in 2006 when he was a skinny infielder. The youngster has matured, not just physically, but in the field, too.
"He's always working," Font said of his star pupil. "He's decided to be successful. I see a lot of kids in the Dominican with talent -- more talent than he has. But they don't work hard. You have to listen. He listens and he set up a routine.
"When last season started, he told me, 'It's my time,'" Font said with a smile. "He can do a little of everything."
There's still a checklist for Castro. Castillo, who also is playing for the Mesa AFL team, acted as interpreter for this interview, and Fleita would like to see Castro be more comfortable speaking in English. He has to keep good work habits. That will make the game easier.
"He's humble," Fleita said. "He's a grounded kid. If he keeps those type of qualities, the game will be pretty easy for him."
Dave Keller, the Cubs' Minor League hitting coordinator, projects Castro will be with the big league club by the middle of the 2010 season. How does he know? One of the projects Keller assigns to the Minor Leaguers is to keep a journal. He doesn't want to read that they went 2-for-4 that day, but Keller asks that they describe their feelings, either at the plate or in the field or on the bench. The journals must be handwritten. Castro, who wrote his in Spanish, was organized and to the point, Keller said.
"He's a very confident kid, but not arrogant," Keller said. "For him, it's just a matter of getting repetitions."
This has been a long season for Castro, who started in March in Spring Training, and won't finish until November when the AFL ends. But if you get a chance to see him in Arizona, watch how he hustles to first on a base hit, or dives to snare a hard-hit grounder.
"He can definitely play shortstop at the big league level," said Josh Vitters, the Cubs' No. 1 Draft pick in 2007, who is also on the Solar Sox. "I can see how people could say that [Castro will be in big leagues next year]. What he has in the infield, you can't really teach."
Ask Castro, and he'll tell you when.
"Next year," the Cubs' future shortstop said in English with a knowing smile.