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Starlin Castro has lots to smile about now

Cubs shortstop StarlCastro is driving ball all fields he believes his defense is best it has been. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro is driving the ball to all fields, and he believes his defense is the best it has been. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 16, 2012 8:25AM

MESA, Ariz. — The face is back in the Cubs’ marketing efforts. The smile is back, too, though maybe not quite as easy, definitely not quite as automatic.

Starlin Castro has learned that much since his worst offseason in the public eye. He also has learned just how much appreciation a guy can find for the early-morning, daily grind of an uneventful spring training in sleepy Mesa, Ariz.

“I don’t think any more about that stuff,’’ he said. “I just let my agent do his job.’’

Since addressing a throng of media on his first day at camp about offseason allegations of sexual assault, Castro has kept his mind completely on baseball.

Despite receiving no official word that the investigation is complete, much less anything official on possible charges, the kid shortstop famous for concentration lapses said the off-the-field issues have created no distractions for him.

“I don’t think so,’’ he said. “[My focus] is good. Everything’s going pretty good this spring.’’

For the Cubs, it’s hard to overstate how important a burden-free, focused Castro is. The National League’s reigning hit king is the biggest star on the team, and the front office plans to build around him.

That was underscored by his return to the Cubs’ advertising campaign after an abrupt reversal of plans when the allegations went public in January.

But despite indications from some sources close to the process that the nearly six-month investigation has gained little traction toward charges being filed, Chicago Police on Wednesday confirmed they are still investigating.

“He’s doing fine,’’ teammate/mentor Alfonso Soriano said of Castro. “You don’t have time to think except to play baseball [during the spring schedule]. I said to him, ‘You just have to be careful and try not to [be in that position] again. And now just focus on baseball and try to forget about what happened.’ ’’

The Cubs have taken the allegations seriously enough that team president Theo Epstein had representatives from Northeastern University’s Center for Sport in Society meet last week with players from both the major-and minor-league camps to discuss conduct away from the ballpark. He also set up such meetings as the Boston Red Sox’ general manager.

Castro’s attorneys have emphatically and repeatedly proclaimed Castro’s innocence (while advising him not to publicly discuss the case) and remain optimistic he’ll be exonerated.

But more than halfway through spring training, the 21-year-old Castro’s only certainties remain the swing that continues to drive the ball to all fields and the defense that he says is the best it has been.

“It’s been going good so far,’’ he said. “In the beginning, I didn’t feel very good at the plate, but right now I feel real good. And [defensively] I feel great. It’s my first year that it feels so good. Mentally, too.’’

Castro, who led the National League with 29 errors last season after committing 27 in five months the year before, said he finally has started to effectively separate hitting from fielding. Mentally, he isn’t taking bad at-bats out to the field.

That might not sound like much, but it probably has been his biggest weakness in a 283-game big-league career that started barely a month after his 20th birthday in 2010.

“Sometimes I’d make an out and go in the field and think about it too much,’’ he said. “Right now it’s separate. I can separate it.’’

It might be especially impressive considering the potential outside influences.

“He’s a strong mental kid, and that did not bother him,’’ Soriano said of Castro’s ability to block out the distractions in camp. “He’s been focusing on one thing: just playing baseball.’’

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