May 8, 2010

A Tale of Two Kiddies

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times (for me to be late in posting).

Starlin Castro burst onto the scene in Friday's 14-7 win in Cincinnati, making much of my analysis of his promotion moot. I was planning on applauding the Cubs for trying something bold yet relatively low-risk, with little potential downside. If a team needs a shot in the arm -- and the Cubs no doubt did -- digging into its prospect pool is a much better way to do it than, say, sending one of your best starters to the bullpen. And while even my favorite baseball writer, Rob Neyer, criticized the Cubs for not waiting a little longer just to avoid Castro getting Super-Two arbitration-eligibility after the 2012 season, I thought it was refreshing to see any front office -- let alone the Cubs -- make a baseball decision based on what it thought was the best interest of the team instead of its finances.

I was also going to beseech the Cubs and their fans to be patient with Castro, and to exercise caution sibce he wasn't going to be some sort of savior. Obviously, the second part of that is surely out the window, as expectations are likely through the roof.

But while some might end up saying that Castro's 3-run homer / 3-run triple performance is the worst thing that could've happened, I'm going to take the opposite stance. It was absolutely the best possible scenario for the kid, his future, and the organization.

Because what that performance has bought is a little bit of patience, which is exactly what the Cubs need and have lacked in the past. It might sound like some sort of crazy oxymoron telling a team to be patient when they've undeniably rushed a prospect, but that's exactly what the Cubs need to be now that he's here.

I hear all the time -- and as a cautionary tale with Castro -- that Felix Pie's flame-out arose because he was rushed. The fact is, he wasn't. Pie spent a full season at each level -- although he did miss half of his AA year with an injury -- and held his own despite typically being one of the youngest players in his league. At the time of his initial call-up, Pie had 1,973 non-rookie-ball plate appearances, 931 of them at AA or AAA. Castro's had 630 and 243, respectively.

No, Pie's issues had nothing to do with being rushed; the problem was that the Cubs were completely impatient, and never really gave him a reasonable opportunity to establish himself.

In Pie's first time up with the Cubs in 2007, he was given 11 starts in his first 12 games, and posted a .233/.250/.419 line in 44 plate appearances. While certainly not great, it's a tiny sample size, five of his 10 hits went for extra bases, and he struck out only eight times. The main reason he "struggled" was that his BABiP was .265. Given his (supposedly) plus defense in centerfield, the Cubs undoubtedly should have given him more time. Instead, he came off the bench for the next ten games or so, went 1-for-6, and was sent back down to AAA.

In Pie's second go-round (also in '07), he started 19 of 20 games and went .228/.295/.354 in 89 plate appearances. Again, it's a very small sample size -- and not all that impressive -- but there were some positive indicators. For one, he drew eight walks, and yes, he was hitting eighth most of the time, but he still had to have the plate discipline to take the pitches (none of BBs were intentional), which is hardly a given with a hitter as young as he was. Plus he stole six bases in seven attempts and still wasn't striking out at an alarming rate. But the Cubs had seen enough, and started Pie in just two games over the next two weeks before shipping him back to Des Moines.

It should be noted that on these return trips to Iowa, Pie annihilated AAA pitching to the tune of 362/.410/.563. He returned to Chicago for good in August of that year, and started all of six games the rest of the way. Apparently, the Cubs decided they'd rather develop 32-year-old Jacque Jones in center, and while Jones did outproduce Pie -- .286/.333/.432 as a CF in 313 PAs -- he also had one 20-plus-game stretch (from May 16 to June 20) in which he went .173/.241/.253. And yet the Cubs, for the most part, stuck with him; he was still the beneficiary of regular playing time, which he used to show off both his XavierNadyPostTommyJohnSurgeryesque throwing arm and his remarkably circuitous routes to flyballs.

Thankfully, Pie was penciled in as the starter in '08. Unfortunately, that penciling lasted all of four games -- after going 3-for-15 with four strikeouts, Pie was in the lineup for just seven of the next 26 contests. On May 5th and 6th, Pie was given back-to-back starts for the first time since those four season-opening games, going 2-for-7 with a walk, which apparently earned him a third start. In that game, he went 0-for-4 with 3 Ks and that was pretty much the end of his career with the Cubs. He only got three at bats over the next handful of games before getting sent down, and by the time he came back up in September, Jim Edmonds was pretty much entrenched in centerfield; Pie was traded to Baltimore the following offseason.

And that should be the cautionary tale in regards to Felix Pie, not some claptrap about him being rushed, which is based not on the facts but rather him being 22 when he was called up. Castro, 20, has been rushed, but as his skill level -- and performance, for the most part -- has warranted it, I don't have much of a problem with it. But I will have a problem if the Cubs don't give him a legitimate shot to get settled in as a big leaguer.

Which is why his huge debut was, well, huge. Because it bought him a whole lot of rope.

Before Friday's game, my notes for this post included that the Cubs should write Castro's name in the lineup every day until the All-Star Break at the very least, regardless of the results. If you are going to bring a player up that quickly, you have to be ready to weather the storm of his struggles.

But there is no doubt in my mind that had Castro started 1-for-20, there would've been a whole lot of wailing about the Cubs jumping the gun, Castro requiring more seasoning, and him needing to be sent back down. I've referenced this before, and it's one of the main causes for my deep-seated hatred of his work, but look at what Paul Sullivan wrote about Pie on August 25, 2007:

Pie has not been able to translate the success he has enjoyed at Triple A to the Cubs, despite being given several opportunities. He hit .362 at Iowa but came into Friday's game hitting .217 in three stints with the Cubs, including a .121 average against left-handers.

Pie's "several opportunities" amounted to all of 174 plate appearances spread out over five months as a 22-year-old. So Sullivan surely would've been leading the Castro's-not-ready charge, and the fans -- for reasons I don't fully understand -- would've been just as eager to label him as yet another over-hyped Cub prospect bust, just as they did with Pie based on Corey Patterson's failings.

In short, Castro wouldn't have stood a chance had he struggled. But because of his huge game, people will now cut him a hell of a lot more slack. Even if he goes through a rough patch, they'll believe he can pull out of it based on that one good game. It sounds ridiculous, but there is no doubt in my mind that it's true.

Still, I beseech Lou Pinella and the Cubs to at all costs just let the kid stay in the lineup. If two weeks from now he's gone from 2-for-5 to 2-for-50, please just leave him alone. Give him a real chance. Because with Geovany Soto quietly putting together a spectacular opening to the season (.362/.516/.594 with an insane .484 wOBA), the Cubs could suddenly be very strong up the middle for years to come. I can't help but wonder what might've been with Pie because it looks like the Cubs are very close to having an eerily similar core of homegrown up-the-middle players to the one that keyed the Yankees late-90's dominance; I'm still hopeful that Brett Jackson can replace Pie into the Bernie Williams role. Sure, that sounds heady stuff, but it's backed up statistically, as Derek Jeter's career .317/.387/.459 line looks like an unabashed pile of shit next to Castro's .400/.400/1.400.

Go Cubs.