Monday, December 29, 2008

Jose Castillo - A Riches to Rags Story

Hey, we noticed that just before Christmas, Jose Castillo signed a minor league deal with the Washington Nats. We could only shake our heads to see such a promising ballplayer reduced to scuffling for work with the lowly DC nine.

The Pirates signed the Venezuelan shortstop in 1997 at the tender age of 17. After working his way through the system, he hit his stride in Lynchburg in 2002, hitting .300. The next season, he followed with a .287 average in Altoona and garnered an armful of accolades.

Castillo was named the Pirates' fourth-best prospect by Baseball America following the 2003 season, and the top wonder child in the Bucco system by USA Today Sports Weekly. He was the starting SS for the World Team in MLB's All-Star Futures Game and an All-Star in the AA Eastern League.

Jose impressed the Pirate suits enough that he by-passed AAA and went straight to the show in 2004. In the field, he was switched to second base, relegating Bobby Hill and Abe Nunoz to the pine, and brought above-average range and a rifle arm to his new spot.

At the plate, he was streaky and not terribly patient, striking out 92 times in 383 at-bats. But his power potential was there. The majority of his extra base hits and home runs were hit the opposite way, including a 445-foot blast at Florida's Pro Player Stadium (aka, Joe Robbie Stadium, home of the Dolphins). This would become a flash point between Castillo and his hitting coaches throughout his career.

He finished with eight home runs, 39 RBI and a .256 batting average, despite missing two months on the DL. Because of his defense and offensive upside, the second base job was his to lose in 2005.

But Castillo tried to lose it. He was on the DL for most of April with a strained left oblique muscle. In late August, he tore the MCL in his left knee and missed the rest of the season.

In between injuries, though, Castillo showed progress both defensively and at the plate when he did play. In the field, the Pirates turned 193 DPs, second to the Card's 196, and he was in on 92 of the twin killings playing just 100 games.

More impressively, Castillo hit .268 with 11 homers and 53 RBI, drastically cutting down on his strikeouts, from 92 in 2004 to 59 in 2005. The Pirates thought the position was set for the foreseeable future.

After a slow April start in 2006, Castillo's bat woke up, culminating in his "Player of the Week" award for the last week in May, during which he lead the NL in RBI, total bases, slugging percentage, and home runs.

The glovework became steadier, too. Sean Casey, just freshly signed from the Reds, told the Post Gazette that "You don't get any better than Castillo and Wilson up the middle. When we played these guys, they'd take at least a hit away from you a series."

But Castillo struggled down the stretch of the 2006 season. He hit seven dingers in a two week span in May, but only six more during the remainder of the year. Many people think that power spurt was the beginning of the end for Castillo. He turned from a guy that used the whole field to someone looking to yank every pitch. It showed.

Castillo suffered through a 0-23 hitting slump in September (he hit .087 for the month), and for the first time, he saw considerable bench time. By the end of the season, his batting average had slipped to .253. His glove suffered too, and he committed a team high 18 errors.

He finished the 2006 season with 14 home runs, 65 RBI, 131 hits, and 25 doubles.

Rumors flew that he might be traded in the off-season, but the Pirates elected to keep Castillo. He was locked in a battle with Jose Bautista for a starting job. Castillo entered camp a few pounds lighter and had a good spring.

But the Pirates decided to start Jose Bautista at third base and Freddy Sanchez at second. Castillo lost the battle, and would start the season on the pine.

Through May and June, Castillo was basically wasting away on the bench. Jim Tracy praised his attitude, but apparently was less impressed with his ability. Jose, not too surprisingly, wasn't happy with his role even if he did keep his mouth zippered, and his agent asked the Pirates to trade him

The street talk says they tried, but couldn't find any takers. And if Dave Littlefield can't give you away, well, that about says it all.

Even playing for a team that just running out the string in 2007, he only got into about half of the games, and many appearances were as a pinch hitter. He was in Tracy's doghouse, and never gave the skipper a reason to let him loose. Castillo finished with a .244 batting average, 24 RBI, and no home runs, and was released by the club on December 6.

On December 24th, Castillo signed with the Florida Marlins, but was placed on waivers in the spring. He was then claimed by the San Francisco Giants on March 22nd, 2008, who took on his $850,000 salary. Castillo opened up the 2008 season as the team's starting third baseman. After a hot start, his twig cooled, and he ended up hitting .244 for the G-Men and took his now-familiar seat on the bench.

Castillo was designated for assignment on August 13th. He was claimed by the Houston Astros on August 20th, and finished the year as a utility man for the 'Stros. Castillo became a free agent when Houston outrighted him in October, and signed a minor league contract with the Washington Nationals on December 23rd. How the mighty have fallen.

What proved to be Jose Castillo's feet of clay that led to his downfall? Well, for one thing, he entirely skipped AAA ball, where his impatience at the plate would have been exposed and worked on by the staff. And the suits can take the blame for that poor decision.

Let's take a look at how the two different management teams dealt with Castillo and current second-baseman-in-training, Shelby Ford.

Jose hit .283 in the bushes, and was 22 when he was at Altoona, batting .287. Ford has a minor league average of .280, and hit .282 for the Curve when he was 23. Castillo had an OBP of .329, slugging percentage of .422 and OPS of .751; Shelby's numbers are .348, .444, and .792. They both have kinda high strikeout rates of 18%.

In the field, Ford physically isn't as talented as Castillo, but statistically is his match and better. Ford's fielding percentage is .977 and range factor 4.87; Castillo's are .957 and 4.79 (although in fairness, Castillo spent his time in the minors at SS, not 2B). One noticeable difference is in double plays; Castillo was much better at turning them.

So we have two players that are pretty similar in age and minor league production. The 2004 Bucs rushed Castillo to the show; the 2009 version is debating whether to start Ford at Altoona again or Indy.

The point isn't to compare the two second basemen, but to show that patience is a virtue that wasn't exercised in Castillo's case and probably became a roadblock to his development. Hopefully it won't be in Ford's situation. The philsophy now seems to be move them quickly in the minors, but not to bring them up until the player is a finished product.

Two other issues factor into Jose's fall from grace. One is his maddening efforts to pull the ball. It completely destroyed his approach at the plate, driving his hitting instructors gray and making a shambles of his average, contact, and power numbers. Whether that May 2006 freak outburst was at fault we'll never know; maybe he just needed some polish that was never applied at the lower levels.

Finally, like Ronny Paulino, his physical shape got worse instead of better in the majors. He carried too much weight and it cost him range in the field, sometimes making him look lethargic on the diamond. It not only took away from his game, but the fans began to think of him as unmotivated, making a bad situation worse.

That can be partially put on Castillo. He's a pro athlete, and should be in shape without big brother looking over his shoulder. But it's interesting that the new bosses installed a PT program in the off season as priority number one. They're just taking care of a small but crucial detail that was overlooked by the Littlefield gang.

Castillo is 27, and a career that started off so brightly has dimmed in a heartbeat. Whether he can become an old dog that can learn new tricks is the question. There comes a point when physical ability has to be meshed with a well thought-out mental plan. Jose Castillo may have passed that point.

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