Luis Castillo and a final glimpse

The first time I saw Luis Castillo pitch was on a backfield in Goodyear. It was a sleepy morning in the spring of 2017, a few months after the Reds had acquired Castillo from the Miami Marlins for pitcher Dan Straily.

I stood right behind the backstop, surrounded by young players from both teams who had crowded together in anticipation to watch the new guy and the radar guns. The digital readings from both Reds and Dodgers guns flashed 97 on Castillo’s fastball. But a different pitch caused the shared grins and giggles from the players.

I’d heard Reds broadcaster Chris Welsh use the word “cambio,” but its meaning had never sunk in. At least not until those Spanish-speaking players whispered it to each other behind that Arizona diamond. Cambio. The Spanish word for “change” translated to the language of baseball means a changeup.

Castillo dominated the talented Dodgers Double-A lineup that morning and offered an early glimpse into his greatness.

It was a miracle the Reds acquired Luis Castillo.

In 2012 at the age of 19, he’d signed out of the Dominican Republic with the San Francisco Giants. Castillo arrived to the Bay Area with those same pitches, a blazing fastball and the cambio. Because of his limited two-pitch portfolio, the Giants assigned Castillo a bullpen role. The young Dominican spent three seasons in their organization, making 94 relief appearances and zero starts.

San Francisco was concerned about Castillo’s control. Before the 2015 season, the Giants traded Castillo — after all, he was just a reliever — to the Marlins, who saw more in his potential. Miami had Castillo learn a curve and through the 2016 season, Castillo made 40 starts. The new role seemed to suit Castillo and his control improved.

But the Marlins were worried about Castillo’s low strikeout rate, so they were willing to move him. In a summer 2016 trade — months before the Straily deal — Miami sent Castillo back west to the San Diego Padres. But in a welcome twist of fate, the Padres had to return Castillo to the Marlins a couple weeks later when an injury was discovered in a pitcher the Padres had dealt to Miami.

Thanks to Colin Rae’s elbow, Castillo became available for the Reds.

What made the 6’2″ right-hander’s arrival to Cincinnati even more implausible was Dan Straily’s 2016 season. Straily had led the Reds in Wins, Innings Pitched and his ERA snuck in just below 4 (3.79). Those aren’t stats a modern baseball analyst would care much about. But from an old-school view, Straily looked like he’d been the Reds best starter in 2016, even though the underlying stats didn’t support that conclusion.

At the time, the Reds remained under Walt Jocketty’s leadership. He was the team’s President of Baseball Operations. The Reds were engaged — in theory — in rebuilding. But in practice, that process had been halting at best. Jocketty was the worst kind of baseball executive to be running a rebuild and trading away a team’s best pitcher wasn’t in his DNA. Fortunately for the Reds, GM Dick Williams’ influence was growing. The Straily-for-Castillo deal was an early sign the Reds might be getting smarter.

Against those steep odds, Luis Castillo became a Cincinnati Red.

Luis Castillo’s 2017 debut was momentous for the organization. By then, the 24-year-old had ditched the curve and learned a slider. His success with that pitch turbocharged Castillo’s arrival to the majors. His big league promotion came after just 17 Double-A starts, none at the Triple-A level.

The Reds were desperate. The team was in the midst of a streak losing 11 of 12 games, on the rocky path to another 94-loss season. A group of other young pitchers was working its way through the Reds outdated development system. Remember the promise of Brandon Finnegan, Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett, Cody Reed, Michael Lorenzen, Rookie Davis and Sal Romano as starters? For a variety of everyday reasons, the Reds “prospects in the pipeline” strategy failed to launch.

Only Luis Castillo became a successful major league starter.

Castillo’s debut came on the road against Dusty Baker’s powerful offense in Washington D.C. It was a tall order for a Double-A pitcher. More than that, the Reds were nowhere near good enough for Castillo to redirect the team’s outcome that season. Reds fans had already witnessed a lot of bad baseball the previous two years. And we weren’t done with that suffering. Yet amid that gloom, Castillo’s promotion heralded a new, better phase of the painful rebuild.

Castillo wasn’t a savior. But if you squinted hard enough, you’d find a glimpse of the Reds moving forward, from futility to future.

Conventional wisdom holds that Luis Castillo had a poor 2021 season. Matt Wilkes and I wrote column after column last year offering theories for what was wrong with Castillo and the changes he needed to make. Media coverage of the 2022 season now discusses Castillo as a bounce-back candidate.

After reflecting on a full season of numbers, allow me to push back on that narrative.

Castillo’s 2021 season was quite similar to his previous two full seasons in 2018 and 2019. His pitch portfolio was identical, including velocity and usage. So were important results metrics: called-strike-whiff percentage, xwOBA (quality and quantity of contact) and fielding-independent xFIP. One metric where Castillo did notably worse in 2021 than 2018 and 2019 was his strikeout rate.

To be sure, none of those full regular seasons was as good as Castillo’s superb 2020, comprised as it was of 12 starts. But instead of thinking of 2021 as a year of regression, maybe it’s more accurate to consider Castillo’s COVID-shortened season as the outlier.

Last year, Castillo made 33 starts. Something seemed to click in his 11th on May 29. In his final 22 starts, Castillo had a 3.35 xFIP (2.73 ERA) — every bit as good, or better, as he’d been in 2021.

You can look at Luis Castillo’s 2021 season one of two ways.

  1. Castillo was his best ever over two-thirds of it, a clear majority and the latter part and that’s what counts.
  2. Castillo is inconsistent over an entire season and didn’t have the chance to show it in the abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Either way, the narrative about Castillo needing a bounce-back season isn’t accurate.

Since his Reds debut, Luis Castillo hadn’t missed a turn in the rotation until this spring — a remarkable span of 123 starts over five seasons. This February, Castillo felt shoulder soreness and wasn’t allowed to throw a pitch in Goodyear. He’s now missed the first month of the season, having been on the 10-day IL since Opening Day. Under his belt are three healthy minor-league rehab starts.

Luis Castillo stands ready to take the mound at Great American Ball Park tonight against the first-place Milwaukee Brewers.

The club Castillo joins is 5-23. With its current pileup of injuries and illness, the Reds active roster is far worse than the team that played behind Castillo in 2017. Just like with his maiden start, Castillo’s faces a high degree of difficulty tonight against a Brewers lineup that torched Reds pitching less than a week ago. Castillo will be making his 18th start against Milwaukee, his 11th against the Brewers at GABP. He’s had a mix of success and failure against the Brewers, but has had the better of it here at home.

Don’t read much into how Luis Castillo does tonight. It’s one game. And like 2017, Luis Castillo will not be a Reds savior in 2022.

Over the past few months, Reds fans have re-learned the tough lesson that baseball is foremost a business to the Castellini family. In that context, it would be negligent to write about Luis Castillo’s first game back without mentioning his contract. (Tyler Mahle is in this same situation.)

When the 2023 season ends, Castillo becomes a free agent, meaning the Reds have control over his contract for the remainder of this season and next. Over the past couple years, Luis Castillo has been a popular subject of trade rumors. This July’s trade deadline will be no different.

Bob Castellini has confessed to a well established record of holding on to popular players too long. The Reds timing for trading Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier and Jay Bruce was off, minimizing the return haul. Castellini never could bring himself to let the front office trade Billy Hamilton. If the club doesn’t want to repeat those mistakes, they’ll move Castillo this summer, when he can offer the other team two seasons (and postseasons) of value.

Of course, the Reds could negotiate a contract extension with Castillo. He will be 31 at the end of the 2023 season, looking for a multi-year, big-dollar contract. The time when Castillo and the Reds might have reached a deal giving the hometown team a discount has passed. Players will often trade a year or two of free agency for the security of an early-career guarantee. But Castillo already has his contract for 2022 ($7.35 million). That leaves one more negotiation until he can talk with all 30 teams.

Failing to reach contract extensions with players like Castillo has become a feature of Reds ownership. It’s part of the paralysis gripping the Reds’ operation since Dick Williams quit. Neglect of those deals is a shame. They can be the best source of value and crucial for the success of low-payroll teams. Major league organizations across the country have seized the opportunity to sign deals that keep their young talent at home. Years ago, even Bob Castellini did it a few times, with great success. But over the past two years, they’ve failed to lock up players like Jesse Winker to affordable extended futures in Cincinnati.

As in other theaters of baseball’s battlefield, the Reds have been missing in action. The club doesn’t have a single player signed beyond the 2023 season other than ones chained to the Reds by baseball’s six-year reserve clause.

Would Luis Castillo have signed such a deal? It takes two to merengue (the national dance of Castillo’s Dominican Republic home). Castillo may not want to twirl with the Reds any longer than necessary. If so, who could blame him? Why would a player agree to a hometown discount with a club that’s on the non-compete path the Castellini family has opted to follow?

Should the Reds now get on the hook for a Castillo mega-deal?

Castillo will rightly ask for a four- or five-year contract that pays him ace money. It will run until he’s 35 or 36. Some team will pay that. But it wouldn’t be smart for the Reds. No, the sweet spot extension for Castillo — as it was with Johnny Cueto — would have been a one- or two-year deal.

So, enjoy Luis Castillo tonight and the next few weeks.

When the Reds ship him off for prospects in July, it’ll give us another glimpse of what this organization has become.

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.