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Cubs’ Starlin Castro preparing for leader role as vets may be out in ‘12

StarlCastro Bryan LaHair

Starlin Castro, Bryan LaHair

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Updated: November 26, 2011 12:28AM

CINCINNATI — It doesn’t matter as much that former big-league manager Bobby Valentine went overboard in criticizing Starlin Castro during a national broadcast a few weeks ago as it does that he was right about the kid shortstop’s attention lapse in that game.

But it matters to the Cubs even more that Castro was “embarrassed’’ by it and that it hasn’t happened again. Just as his head-down failure to chase down a ball that got by him in his Wrigley Field debut last year — allowing an extra base — hasn’t happened again.

And that his agility turning the double play improved dramatically after Matt Holliday took him out on a controversial play six weeks ago in St. Louis. And that his technique on tag plays and in running the bases also continues to improve.

Why is all of this so important?

Because what Sunday’s lineup suggested is coming faster than a lot of people thought.

Still more than two weeks shy of finishing his first full season in the majors, the 21-year-old Castro has more big-league service time than five players who were in the lineup Sunday at New York.

With a new general manager coming in, hints of some contract-cleansing coming to the roster and ownership beating the player-development drum harder over the last month, Castro might well be an elder statesman in this lineup by the time he’s 23.

“If not next year, maybe the year after,’’ said teammate Alfonso Soriano, who could be in the final month of his Cubs career if the team gets aggressive about moving what’s left of his enormous contract to open a position for the Brett Jacksons and Bryan LaHairs of the organization.

“If I leave, if [Aramis Ramirez] leaves, [Carlos] Pena leaves, who’ll be left on the field? He could be the old one on the team in three or four years.’’

Maybe sooner.

This is why manager Mike Quade and his staff have at times come down disproportionately hard on Castro — double-play partner Darwin Barney, too. Why Quade has singled out Castro at times, publicly, while appearing to overlook the bad habits and transgressions of some veterans.

Those veterans aren’t the future — even the near future — envisioned by the organization. What will matter most, perhaps next year, is how much and how quickly Castro becomes a cornerstone player able to set a tone and command the respect of the players coming behind him.

In barely 10 months in the big leagues, he’s already an All-Star with a .300 rookie year behind him, a 200-hit season in his sights and a marquee place in the Cubs’ plans.

His two doubles and two-run homer in the Cubs’ 12-8 victory over Cincinnati on Monday pushed his National League-leading hits total to 190 and gave him nine homers this season, six in the last six weeks.

Castro doesn’t pretend to have everything figured out in the big leagues. But he does seem to recognize how much he has learned since making his six-RBI major-league debut in Cincinnati last year.

“I have only two years but have a lot of experiences already,’’ said Castro, whose greatest strength might be a drive to be the best player in the game. “I want to be that [team leader] one day. You need one leader on a team. As a team, there’s nine players that play every day. You need one leader to pull everybody together. At the beginning of the season Pena did that. I want to be one of those guys like that, maybe in the future — I don’t know.

“I can do that. I can help the people [coming up] behind me. When I came up, I had Soriano to help me a lot of times. I want to be like him with the [next] group coming up to help them.’’

Castro’s success, as well as his position, fit the leadership profile. The rest is about personality and communication skills.

“That’s a lot to ask from a 21-, 22-year-old guy,’’ Ramirez said. “Three or four years from now, that’s a different story. He’s got the ability to do it, he’s smart enough to do it. He’s got the attitude, and he’s going to be a great player. It’s just a matter of getting it done now.

Ready or not?

“It’s [happening] real fast,’’ he said, “but I’ll try to be ready.’’

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