BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic -- On Monday, 16-year-old Venezuelan Carlos Penalver started at shortstop for the Cubs' instructional league team in a game against the Orioles. Starlin Castro, only two years removed from the Cubs academy, stood in the shade of a palm tree near the first-base line to watch.
Castro, 20, wears a diamond-encrusted watch, designer dress shoes and jeans. He was talking to friends as well as juggling calls from two cell phones. He will get back to work Tuesday when he is expected to start for Escogido in the Dominican Winter League, his final preparation for Spring Training and his second season with the Cubs.
"This time last year, he was another prospect," said Jose Serra, director of Latin American operations for the Cubs. "Now he's the starting shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. It's unbelievable."
The 60 players at the Cubs' academy can only dream about getting to the big leagues. Castro has been there.
"Your life changes a little bit -- believe me," Castro said about how different things are for him after a season in which he batted .300, making a splash with a three-run homer in his first Major League at-bat May 7 against the Reds. He finished that game with six RBIs, a Major League record for a debut.
Castro on Monday was named the shortstop on the 52nd annual Topps Major League Rookie All-Star team.It's an impressive group that also includes Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez, Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, Twins third baseman Danny Valencia and outfielders Austin Jackson of the Tigers, Mike Stanton of the Marlins and Jason Heyward of the Braves. Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg, Cardinals left-hander Jaime Garcia and Rangers reliever Neftali Feliz rounded out the honorees. The Rookie All-Stars will each have a trophy on their 2011 trading card in Topps Baseball, with Series One due out in early February. Castro's success has allowed him to take care of his family. One of the first things he did upon returning to his island home in the Caribbean was to buy a new house for his parents in Monte Cristy, which is about a four hour drive from Boca Chica, and purchase a new truck for his father.
But the Cubs also have stressed that it's one thing to get to the big leagues. He has to prove he can make the adjustments to stay.
"I've been working hard -- next year will be a better year," Castro said. "The pitchers are intelligent. They know what I like to hit. I have to prepare."
In a tune-up game with the Cubs' instructional league on Friday, Castro went 3-for-5 with a home run. He smiles when he relays the stats. But the Cubs want to make sure he's ready defensively, and sent infield coach Ivan DeJesus to the academy for one week of tutoring earlier this month, followed by another week with Minor League infield instructor Franklin Font, who finished his lessons last Friday.
Castro told reporters in the Dominican that he was going to play a few weeks ago, but instead was limited to defensive drills. The focus, after making 27 errors in his first year, was on his throwing.
"I know what I have to do," he said about playing shortstop. "I have to take it easy, take my time, recognize the speed of the runner. I'm ready."
Castro is still 20 -- he turns 21 in March -- but he's gained 10 to 15 pounds of muscle and a lot of experience.
"He's grown up," said Serra, who discovered the slender infielder.
Alfonso Soriano sees a difference, too. The Cubs outfielder also was at the academy on Monday to take part in a fan trip coordinated by Apple Vacations which provides an inside look into baseball life in the Dominican. Soriano took Castro under his wing in Chicago when the shortstop was called up to the Cubs and has stayed in touch in the offseason.
"He's a good kid," Soriano said. "The first year is always the hardest. You're always learning. Now he knows what he has to do."
The Cubs haven't had an All-Star shortstop since Shawon Dunston. They're eager to see what Castro can do his sophomore season.
"I'm ready," Castro said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.