To the surprise of some, the New York Yankees are on top of the American League East Division standings.
The Yankees current 24-13 record has the club 1.5 games up on the second place Baltimore Orioles.
One of the biggest keys to the surge by the latest incarnation of the Bronx Bombers to the top of the standings has been the play of second baseman Starlin Castro.
Castro was dealt by the Chicago Cubs at the 2015 Winter Meetings to the Yankees. In exchange, New York received pitcher Adam Warren and a player to be named later. That PTBNL turned out to be infielder Brendan Ryan.
Castro was always seen as having dynamic offensive potential. The Cubs hierarchy simply believed that he had reached the peek of his skills, and that they had better in-house options.
At the time of the trade, the Cubs had both Javier Baez and Addison Russell ready for full big league opportunities. In fact, Russell broke into the starting lineup on the North Side as a second baseman in 2015, as Castro had been established as the Cubs starting shortstop.
Castro was signed out of his native Dominican Republic, and in 2010 made his big league debut. He finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting that season after hitting .300 with 31 doubles, 10 steals, and 41 RBI over 503 plate appearances.
The following year of 2011, Castro led all of Major League Baseball with 207 hits. And in three of the four years between 2011-14, Castro was a National League All-Star.
FROM WINDY CITY TO BIG APPLE
With the development of Baez and Russell, the Cubs saw an opportunity to bring in a valuable arm in Warren for a player they believed was unwilling to change his approach in order to improve his game.
For the Yankees part, they saw that dynamic offensive package in a player who was still young. The then 25-year old was plugged into a retooling Yankees lineup at second base in the first season of the post-Derek Jeter era.
In his first season in pinstripes, Castro hit .270 with 21 homers and 70 RBI. This year, the now 27-year old is entering his prime, and his production has exploded. He is currently hitting for a .351/.387/.545 slash line with seven homers, 26 RBI, 29 runs scored, and nine doubles.
Those statistical figures are either first or second in the Yankees regular lineup. As quoted by Billy Witz for the New York Times earlier this month, Yanks GM Brian Cashman commented on his approach and production:
“If you focused on the negatives, you can get tripped up and frustrated, but if you focus on what he does well, you’ll appreciate what he brings to the table. You watch his at-bats play out, and you see he’s not Wade Boggs working the count. But he is a tough out. You get him 0-2, 1-2, that’s when the at-bat starts. He’s a tough out and a very dangerous hitter, and I don’t think he’s a finished product.”
While he is never likely to be a Gold Glove defender, Castro holds his own defensively at the Keystone position. Teaming with defensive whiz Didi Gregorius helps, as does his own offensive value.
CUBS WIN SERIES, YANKS GET YOUNG TALENT
The trade with Chicago has proven a bit convoluted. The Yanks reacquired Warren last July, along with a package of highly considered minor league prospects, in exchange for closer Aroldis Chapman.
That deal certainly worked out for the Cubs. Chapman proved to be a lights-out closer on a World Series championship team. But the Yankees may benefit greatly in the long run.
One of the prospects received in last summer’s deal is shortstop Gleyber Torres. He is now the top prospect in the system and one of the top prospects in baseball.
The New York Yankees are already at the top of the divisional standings. If Cashman is proven correct that Castro can still improve, he may prove pivotal in helping them stay there.