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Cubs' Starlin Castro Led Off Sunday; No. 3 Should Be His Destination

Starlin Castro batted leadoff Sunday -- but his long-term destination must be No. 3 in the lineup.

Starlin Castro of the Chicago Cubs high fives Geovany Soto after scoring in the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates during opening day at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Starlin Castro of the Chicago Cubs high fives Geovany Soto after scoring in the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates during opening day at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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Much ado about nothing.

I was driving to Wrigley Field Sunday when the Cubs lineup was called into The Score as soon as the clubhouse opened. And then ensued an excited chat between baseball-show hosts Matt Spiegel and Barry Rozner about Starlin Castro, the new Cubs leadoff man.

There were worries Mike Quade had gone back on his word to not bat Castro, considered an adept No. 2 hitter already at age 21, leadoff. Rozner correctly suggested Castro perhaps be dropped to third in the order and left there. If only Spiegel and Rozner weren't under pressure to heat up the phone lines with instant reaction. Had they waited another 45 minutes, they would have learned the Castro leadoff alignment was likely a one-and-done deal by Quade, who wanted to rest usual No. 1 hitter Kosuke Fukudome in front of expected playing time during the Diamondbacks series starting Monday. In his pre-game talk, Quade agreed with the analysis Castro could be headed for middle-of-the-lineup duty in the foreseeable future.

During the course of Sunday's game, Castro showed stark examples of why the Cubs won't bat him leadoff, and why he could be the long-term No. 3 hitter -- the home of any team's best offensive athlete.

Although he drew a walk to lead off the game, Castro used an extreme efficiency of pitches in his next three at-bats. He flied on on the first pitch against Ross Ohlendorf in the third. He banged a triple off the center-field wall, also on the first pitch in the fifth. Comparative patience was displayed against Ohlendorf in the sixth with another triple to left, this time on the second pitch.

Say what you want about Lou Piniella's motivation in his last two Cubs managerial seasons. But the erstwhile Sweet Lou called Castro's young career right. He saw him as a good No. 2 hitter who could grow into a 20-homer power threat a few years later.

MIght as well advance the timetable this season. Castro seems to be growing as a player by leaps and bounds. He hit .300 as a raw 20-year-old rookie, the only first-year Cub since Bill Madlock in 1974 to reach .300. He had good right-field hitting ability. Despite the usual youthful mistakes, Castro seems to be soaking up baseball like a sponge. His ability to learn the game seems to match his willingness to absorb the English language. Castro can carry on a conversation without the need of interpreter Ivan DeJesus, a necessity last season.

The Cubs lineup needs a pick-me-up, and not especially at leadoff. Run production is the key. Castro could do so many things at No. 3, including an occasional stolen base. The Cubs can wait for his power, this year or two seasons down the line, if he does so many other things with average and gap power.

Incumbent No. 3 hitter Marlon Byrd seems better at No. 6 or 7, if his 2009 Texas Rangers production could be duplicated. Moving Castro and Byrd around means finding a new No. 2 hitter. Why not Darwin Barney, who says he's a student of the game? Barney would most appreciate the second-place hitter's duties of hitting behind the runner and sacrificing himself. The rookie has come this far to seize part of the second base platoon -- why not push him just a bit further?

If Carlos Pena regains his power form of a few seasons back with Tampa Bay, hitting .250 but drawing 90-some walks, he'd be the perfect cleanup batter, dropping Aramis Ramirez to fifth. Byrd can then mix and match with both Alfonso Sorinao and Geovany Soto to bring up the rear.

And when Fukudome yields to Tyler Colvin in right? Try Barney at leadoff, with Byrd No. 2.

The Cubs are a perfectly imperfect lineup. But teams have contended, or more, with worse. As long as Quade is flexible in his thinking, a change from his predecessor, life with the North Siders will be a lot more interesting. And they have a manager who won't be defensive or evasive in explaining his lineup decisions, a change from a Piniella razzing curious media that they must count Cubs combinations one through nine in their sleep.

There should be one day-by-day staple -- a budding star out of the Cubs farm system at No. 3.