Simon Castro's rise up the prospect ranks hasn't been smooth and easy. The 6-foot-5, 210-pounder spent three seasons between rookie ball and Low-A before getting a chance against upper-minors hitters.
Kudos to the Padres' player development staff for being so patient with him. It's hard to keep a mid-90s fastball in the minors for so long. That patience will likely lead to a pitcher who's ready to make a big-league impact in 2011.
Built similarly to Dontrelle Willis, Castro jumped from Low-A in 2009 to Double-A in 2010, skipping High-A entirely. He was rewarded for a successful Double-A showing with a two-start trial in Triple-A to end the 2010 season. The Dominican Republic native, who has now reached the 140-inning mark in back-to-back seasons, toed the rubber when I was in Surprise on April 1, 2010.
Scroll to the middle of the page for some gifs of Castro.
4-seam fastball (top left): Sitting 92-94 MPH with impressive arm-side run and some sink, Castro's fastball is already a plus pitch. He wasn't always on the corners, but he hit his target regularly and wasn't afraid to come inside. Rather than trying to overpower hitters up with his four-seamer, Castro tried to come in, break bats and get weak contact. The pitch was one of the best fastballs I saw all spring.
Slider (bottom left): Castro could get a lot of big league hitters out with the fastball/slider combo I saw alone. His slider has sharp, late, downward movement. Coming in between 81-86 MPH, it looked like a hard, tight curveball. He preferred burying his slider down in the zone and away over risking getting too much plate with it. But the pitch moves enough that Castro will be able to sneak in some first-pitch strikes and get plenty of swing-throughs within the zone. I saw a slightly above-average pitch that could be plus with a little more command.
Changeup (top right): I deliberately put Castro's 83-85 MPH changeup and 4-seamer gifs side-by-side. While he has similar arm action with the two, he decelerated his body when he threw his changeup. Note how he tries to counter-balance his momentum toward the plate by hesitating with his back leg as he throws the pitch (you'll see his leg follow through across his body with his toe in a higher position than any of his other pitches). Big-league hitters will likely be able to pick this up. Still, the pitch has some run and sink away from lefties, though not as much as his fastball. If he can learn to mask his changeup delivery a little more, the pitch may surface as an average to slightly above big-league offering.
Two-seam fastball (bottom right): Given how much his four-seamer moves, I'm not sure how much Castro needs his two-seamer. I saw the pitch at 89-91 MPH with more run than his four-seamer but less sink. He didn't throw it often. Still, plenty of pitchers would be thrilled to get as much movement with their two-seamer as Castro does.
Castro's low-3/4 arm slot is one of the reasons he's able to impart so much movement on his fastball and changeup. He repeated well, worked quickly from the stretch and got the ball up in the driveline before footplant. Perhaps mechanical issues played a role in his rookie-ball command struggles, but he was explosive and balanced when I saw him.
They said it
“I really like what I’ve seen of him. He not only has stuff, he knows how to use it and he wants to learn.” - Bud Black told the San Diego Union-Tribune last spring
"Castro has been amazing. He's got great energy. He has really got a feel for every one of his pitches. I didn't realize he was as advanced as he is." - Nick Hundley told MLB.com after catching Castro last spring
"He's got a great body, loose arm, a fastball in the mid-90s and a strikeout type slider. His changeup is his third pitch. He's worked hard on that. Last year his command was leaps and bounds from where it was. He's been a special kid since Day One. His makeup, work ethic...it was evident when we first signed him what kind of kid he was." - Randy Smith, the Padres director of player development, told MLB.com
Castro has room to improve his command, but I saw him show a feel for three pitches that could be average or better in the bigs. The big righty pitched with a purpose. He wasn't just throwing the heck out of the ball every time, instead opting to aim for corners and keeping hitters off-balance with thought-out pitch sequences and locations.
I saw Castro follow up one outside slider that eluded the catcher's glove with another slider that painted the black and put him back ahead in the count. Still, pitches got away from him every once and a while.
Though he did only have two wild pitches and six hit batters in 2010, he is going to need to command each of his offerings better to reach his ceiling as a No. 1 starter. Castro's fastball is good enough to get outs even when he leaves it over the plate. It's promising that he's not afraid to challenge hitters with it, but I wonder if sometimes he's a bit too casual with locating it in the zone. If he learns to bury each of his offerings down in the zone with more regularity, I think he could be a guy who strikes out 175+ batters annually.
Even if Castro only had his fastball, he'd be an outstanding prospect. Throw in a secondary with a swing-through slider and a decent changeup and you have a guy who probably won't spend much more time in the minors. Castro's low walk rates over the last two seasons are evidence of his ability to control each of his offerings. He'll need pin-point command to maintain or improve his strikeout rate once he's faces big-league hitters. I wouldn't put it past him to take another step forward with his command.
Castro's perfect-world upside is a true ace who gets a lot of ground balls and misses a lot of bats. He could be a No. 3 starter if he only makes moderate progress from when I saw him. He's in my mix for a nod as one of the top five pitching prospects in baseball entering 2011.