Day 2 in Corpus Christi. Catching up with Castro the (future) Astro.
It’s not unusual for a twenty-something to tour Europe as a post-college graduation adventure, but Jason Castro never had that opportunity.
Castro went directly from the College World Series to the New York-Penn League, where he began his professional career with the Tri-City Valley Cats after being selected as the Astros’ No. 1 Draft pick in 2008. Traveling to exotic far-away places was not an option at the time, but it turns out, Castro is indeed going to get that tour trhough Europe.
Even before his season as the starting catcher for the Double-A Hooks concludes in early September, Castro will head to Cary, NC, to report to Team USA. That club will participate in the IBAF World Cup, a 22-team tournament that begins play on Sept. 9 in Spain, Germany, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Croatia.
“When I found out that I was selected to play on the team, it was definitely an honor,” Castro said before the Hooks game against the Arkansas Travelers on Wednesday. “I’ve never been to Europe before. To represent Team USA is something I’ve never been able to do, so this is pretty special.”
Once that tournament is complete, Castro will likely continue to play offseason baseball in the Arizona Fall League. He’ll have a couple of months of down time before reporting to Spring Training in February, but where he lands on the Astros depth chart between now and then is anyone’s guess. Few have doubts about Castro’s certain future as the Astros’ No. 1 catcher. The only question is, how soon will the future arrive?
From a public standpoint, there is pressure to push Castro into that role coming out of Spring Training. The Astros are hesitant to do that, fearing pushing him too soon could be detrimental to the big picture. They anointed J.R. Towles “the guy” entering Spring Training in 2008, and that all but backfired. They don’t want to repeat history.
So will the Astros need to find another stop-gap, a la Pudge Rodriguez, next spring, until Castro is ready? Will there even be a stop-gap available? Or, do they hand Castro the job, step away, and cross their fingers?
Those are discussions the front office will probably have a hundred times this offseason. Castro will simply do what’s asked of him, and while he is aware of the hype surrounding him — he follows the Astros pretty regularly, when his schedule allows — he doesn’t intend to preoccupy himself with worrying about whether he’ll have a legitimate chance to win a job in the big leagues next March.
“It’s something that I’ve always dreamed of doing, and now that I’m kind of on the cusp of getting that opportunity, it’s exciting,” he said. “There is some pressure. But I’ve tried to keep it in the back of my mind and not let it really come into play when I’m on the field. I can’t really worry about it. Hopefully, the things I do on the field will speak for themselves.”
Castro began the 2009 season at Class A Lancaster and was promoted to Corpus in early June. Over 48 games with the Hooks, he’s hitting .304 with nine doubles, two homers and 21 RBIs.
Hooks manager Luis Pujols, the ex-catcher who played for two Astros playoff teams during his seven-year tenure in Houston (1977-83), said of Castro’s first-round pick status, “He’s No. 1, and he’s backing it up here.” Asked about Castro possibly being the Astros No. 1 catcher Opening Day next year, however, Pujols was more reserved.
“I like him. I wish I could say he’ll be the guy next year, but he’s still a long way away,” Pujols said. “I’d like to see him finish the season here, go to World Cup games, the Arizona Fall League, Spring Training, and then who knows?”
Castro is a quick study, Pujols noted, which definitely helps to accelerate the learning process.
“Everything we tell him, he’s able to put in place during the game right away,” Pujols said. “I see him hitting and it seems like he’s hitting the ball hard everywhere. He doesn’t hit a lot of home runs. He’s a gapper. He hits the ball hard to right field and left field. He doesn’t strike out much. I haven’t seen a young guy like that in a while.”
Chia-Jen Lo is another one to keep an eye on. He was also promoted mid-season from Lancaster to Corpus Christi, and although he’s had some fatigue issues with his shoulder, the 23-year-old right-handed reliever appears to be adjusting well in his first year of professional baseball in America.
Lo has never experienced this kind of workload, a lesson the team learned the hard way when it lost him to tendinitis for a few weeks. Now, he’s restricted to throwing no more than two innings, and through 23 appearances, he has a 3.75 ERA and is averaging a strikeout per inning.
“The hardest thing to adjust to is the long season,” Lo said through his interpreter, Justin Wei. “I’ve never been through this many games. It’s my first full season, and it’s been an adjustment.”
Lo is also in the process of learning English. A tutor comes to the ballpark regularly to work with him, and he admits picking up the language is definitely a work in progress.
“It’s hard,” he laughed. “It’ll be at least a year.”
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