It might shock a small few of you that from time to time I'll go overboard on a player. For every Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler and Derek Holland who has opened my eyes in Surprise there's a Juan Moreno and a John Hudgins and a Johnny Lujan. You're advised to have the salt shaker handy when I get amped up about a prospect based on a small sample of firsthand, uninitiated observations.
With that said, there's a player out here who I was resigned a year ago to put on the second list but now has me thinking he might be back on track to fulfilling all the promise he arrived with. He's a player who slid quietly through last year's Rule 5 Draft, and was really never much of a candidate to be protected in the first place. That's probably about to change.
There could be any number of reasons that I was so high on Fabio Castillo when he signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2005. Maybe it was the monster bonus he landed as part of the Rangers' J2 class that summer (reported to be as much as $400,000). Maybe it was the general lack of high-end pitching prospects in the system once you got past Danks, Volquez, Diamond, and Hurley. Maybe it was what Castillo (along with Cristian Santana and Johan Yan) represented, a hopeful return to prominence in Latin America after years of relative irrelevance internationally, in what was A.J. Preller's first J2 crop since joining the organization.
My enthusiasm gained conviction with the 5.2-inning, one-single, zero-walk, 14-strikeout effort he put up in his next-to-last start of the 2006 Dominican Summer League season, five months after I'd seen him in Surprise and said of the big righthander, who sported a prototype pitcher's build at age 17: "Castillo's what they look like."
Maybe so, but his productivity, like Santana (a catcher who is now a left fielder/DH) and Yan (a shortstop who is now a relief pitcher), wasn't measuring up. Castillo's ERA pushed up against 6.00 for Spokane in 2007 and sat at 6.75 as a starter for Clinton in 2008 (and 4.53 as a reliever), and while he was better out of the Hickory bullpen in 2009 (4.05, .269 opponents' average), he was a fourth-year pro pitching in middle relief in Low Class A and by then had been passed by what seemed like a thousand others in what had become a pitching-rich system.
Then came 2010. Assigned to the hitter-friendly California League out of spring training, Castillo allowed earned runs two times in his first 12 appearances (more than half of which lasted more than one inning), and he never really slowed down. In 36 Bakersfield relief appearances, he scattered 41 hits (two home runs) over 51.2 innings, good for a .219 opponents' average, the lowest of his career since that 2006 run through the DSL. Castillo fanned 65 and walked 26, posted a 1.92 ERA, permitted five of 19 inherited runners to score, and he was 1.40 times more likely to coax a groundout than an out in the air.
His velocity was up to 94-97, he was commanding a nasty slider, his second-half ERA was 1.04 (.189 opponents' average, 2.31 G/F, no home runs), and late in August -- in the midst of a stretch in which he hadn't allowed an earned run in 15 games (17 innings, nine hits [seven singles and two doubles], six walks, 26 strikeouts) -- he was promoted to Frisco for a bigger challenge.
Castillo gave up a couple runs in his first AA relief appearance but put up scoreless efforts his next four times out (including two appearances in the Texas League playoffs). His stuff was creating a buzz that had been missing since his first couple years in the system. A buzz that might be the strongest of any pitcher in Surprise right now.
I went to the Advanced Instructional League game yesterday, knowing in advance that Castillo was slated to pitch the ninth. There were other reasons I was looking forward to that game -- Tanner Sheppers, Miguel De Los Santos, and Ovispo De Los Santos were also pitching -- but I was keyed up to see Castillo more than any of them.
Scheppers (15 strikes, five balls) sat 94-96 and had a very good curve in his inning of work -- a real key for him -- and both De Los Santos's were dirty though inconsistent. Hector Nelo (who didn't finish his inning due to some physical issue) and Trevor Hurley were impressive, as was center fielder Ryan Strasbourger, whose arm strength and run tool are drawing some Craig Gentry comparisons.
But the best position player I saw on Friday was Reds catcher Yasmani Grandal (impressive at the plate and behind it -- Cincinnati has a good problem with Grandal and Devin Mesoraco coming, a problem I'd very much like to see Texas help alleviate).
So when I saw that Grandal was due to bat fourth in the top of the ninth inning, I was cool with it when Reds outfielder Denis Phipps singled sharply to left on the first pitch he saw from Castillo. I wanted to see a Castillo-Grandal matchup.
But then, after Cleveland shortstop Juan Diaz grounded out to second, moving Phipps to second base, Castillo (who sat 93-95 and touched 96) and catcher Vin DiFazio teamed up on a double play, as Reds second baseman Cody Puckett swung through 1-2 high heat and DiFazio cut Phipps down trying to steal third, leaving Grandal stranded on deck as the inning ended.
Castillo is what they look like again.
So are outfielder Jordan Akins, a physical prototype, and baby catcher Jorge Alfaro, both of whom stand out in drills and allow you to dream big about what they might be, and third baseman Christian Villanueva, who stands out in everything he does. The 19-year-old from Mexico (who hit .314/.365/.431 in his first season stateside) is remarkably smooth defensively, fundamentally sound, and has lightning quick hands at the plate that led one Rangers instructor to suggest he could develop along the same lines as countryman Vinny Castilla, whose power didn't arrive until he was a 27-year-old in his fifth big league season.
Between Villanueva and Mike Olt (also having a tremendous camp) and Tommy Mendonca, there's more playable depth out here at third base than there's been in years.
Righthanders Richard Alvarez and Roman Mendez threw bullpen sides alongside each other Friday morning. Alvarez looks stronger, and better, every time I see him. He's more polished than Mendez, whose raw stuff is impressive, if inconsistent.
As pitching coordinator Danny Clark and about four others from the Rangers' crew of instructors worked with Mendez on some mechanical checkpoints, I couldn't help but think that the projectable 20-year-old, the new toy who came over in the Jarrod Saltalamacchia trade with Boston two months ago and thus is getting Rangers instruction for the first time, is Exhibit A of why those guys love their job and keep grinding it out anonymously, behind the scenes.
Righthander Luke Jackson, who probably would have been sitting in an Intro to Chemistry class at Miami on Friday morning if he hadn't decided in August to sign, followed Alvarez and Mendez in the bullpen. But he and Clark spent his 10 minutes with no catcher, and no baseball, working strictly on mechanics, specifically on balance points.
Thinking about college football this morning? Jake Skole probably is too, which is not to say he regrets deciding on pro baseball. Check out Spencer Fordin's feature on Skole for MLB.com.
One last morning of Instructs for me, then it's back to Texas, with full focus on playoff rosters and Game 1 and Game 4 matchups (the latter of which I have to believe depends on whether Texas is up 2-1 or down 1-2, despite reports) and why a former Rangers GM is a far more likely candidate in Queens than the current one and the welcome ice-cream-headache intensity of post-season baseball. For now, righthanders Justin Grimm and David Perez are among the young pitchers I expect to see in action today, and I'm looking forward to it.
But this has been a position player's camp, for the first time in years. And it's fair to say that the MVP of camp so far, if you talk to enough people with the organization, has been shortstop Luis Sardinas. Between Sardinas and Jurickson Profar, not to mention Leury Garcia and Hanser Alberto, the depth this franchise has at shortstop behind Andrus is going to create some excellent opportunities for the front office. Young shortstops with tools who play defense and contribute offensively help get deals for veteran pitching done.
I'd be going nuts, with conviction, about Profar's and Sardinas's future if it weren't for the cautionary tale of Fabio Castillo's development into a pitcher who, despite monster stuff and good health, went undrafted in December, as he should have.
Then again, Castillo's resurgence in the summer and fall of 2010 has been so encouraging that, because I am who I am, I might as well go ahead and start sweating whether Texas will be able to keep Profar and Sardinas from leaving via free agency in 2020, and worrying about the clubhouse impact when the two are running against each other in the Arlington mayor's race.
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(c) Jamey Newberg