Starlin Castro is one of the most accomplished hitters in baseball, a four-time All-Star who has received votes for Rookie of the Year and MVP. He’s led the National League in hits. He was on every top prospects list when he first sped through the Cubs’ farm system more than a decade ago. He’s 19th among all active players with 1,633 hits, and everyone ahead of him on the list has played in at least 131 more big league games than he has.
Yet ask someone to name the most important members of the Nationals lineup, and you might hear five or six names mentioned - Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Josh Bell, Ryan Zimmerman, Kyle Schwarber - before Castro’s ever comes up.
Because he missed most of the 2020 season after breaking his wrist, because general manager Mike Rizzo added some other prominent bats this winter and because Castro isn’t really one to draw much attention to himself, Nats fans probably don’t feel like they know what they’ve got at second base yet.
“They don’t know,” Castro said Saturday during a Zoom session with reporters, his first since August 2020. “Because especially with a short season last year, and then I got hurt - I think I played 16-17 games - they don’t know me yet.”
Castro indeed played in only 16 games last summer before breaking his right wrist on a diving play in the field in Baltimore. His numbers (.267/.302/.450 slash line) weren’t anything special, though he had just hit two homers in his previous five games. He was batting third in Davey Martinez’s lineup, and he didn’t appear to be the right choice for that prime assignment.
Those who already knew Castro well from his pre-Nationals days, though, knew what the Nats lost when he suffered his season-ending injury.
“I think there’s something to be said for a guy that’s been in the big leagues for 10 years, if you’re missing somebody like that,” utility man Josh Harrison said. “I’m pretty sure - I don’t know if he’s got 2,000 hits, could be close, I don’t want to sell him short - that’s a consistent bat. That’s a guy that’s been around. Him going down was something you never want to see.”
Though Harrison only joined the Nationals during the first week of the abridged 2020 season, he’s actually known Castro longer than anyone else on the roster. Originally drafted by the Cubs in 2008, he made his professional debut that fall at the instructional league in Arizona. Also on the roster was an 18-year-old shortstop who was the talk of the organization, even though he’d yet to play in anything above rookie ball.
By the 2009 season, Castro was playing in high Single-A and then Double-A. By 2010, he was in the big leagues for good.
“You don’t see too many kids that you haven’t seen in instructs that haven’t played in low-A come back the following season and he’s in high-A,” Harrison marveled. “And not only in high-A, but in high-A playing well. Back then, I knew the future could be bright for him.”
Castro, who turns 31 next month, perhaps never fully blossomed into the star he was projected to become, but his career has been one of consistent performance. From 2011-19, he averaged 164 hits, 29 doubles and 14 homers. And his most consistent attribute, whether playing for the Cubs, Yankees or Marlins, was the fact that he played every day.
During that same nine-year stretch, Castro played in an average of 149 games per season. He appeared in all 162 games twice, including 2019 in Miami.
“The thing I love about him is, he loves to play the game,” Martinez said. “You never have to ask him if he’s OK. He’s going to play every day and do the best he can to help us win.”
That’s what made the 2020 season particularly frustrating for Castro. He’d never been forced to miss so much time due to injury before. And he desperately wanted to stay with his teammates even as he was rehabbing.
Trouble was, Major League Baseball’s protocols prohibited players on the injured list from being in the clubhouse or traveling on the road, a move designed to limit numbers in closed quarters during the pandemic. So Castro had no choice but to spend the rest of his summer in Miami, rehabbing on his own and watching games on TV.
“I was really excited to be on this team, really excited to play with the Nationals in Washington,” he said. “So it was really hard for me. When that happened, I got really frustrated. I did the surgery, and right away I put it in my mind: If the team makes the playoffs, I’m going to be back.”
Yep, that’s right. Rather than accept the fact he was done for 2020 and turn his attention toward preparing for 2021, Castro was determined to get himself healthy and back into playing shape just in case the Nationals made the postseason.
As you know by now, they never really came all that close to making it into the expanded playoff field. But Castro’s attempt to return anyway resonated with them.
“He called me a couple times a week,” Martinez said. “He missed being with the team. ... He said the whole time: ‘I’ll be ready. When you guys make the playoffs, I’ll be ready.’ That’s a testament to who he is. This is a guy who loves to play, loves his teammates, and he has a lot of fun doing what he does.”
These days, Castro is itching to play again. His wrist was fully healed by November, and he began hitting in December. He’s participating in full this spring and is expecting not only to start at second base on opening night but every night that comes after that.
“I think, God willing, I feel really healthy this year,” he said. “My hand’s really good. We’re going to play 162 games. It’s going to be a good season for us.”