Monday, March 9, 2015

Miguel Castro in the Bullpen? Don't Do It, AA.

  I don't want to be on a negative streak here, but some of the comments about Miguel Castro have me a little concerned:

   I know that I last wrote about Daniel Norris and how I'm not sure he's ready just yet to be relied upon heavily in the Blue Jays rotation, given his pitch efficiency issues (which, granted, are not overwhelming), and that he has had elbow problems in each of the last two seasons.  Both red flags make me want to see him spend at least a bit more time (half a season, maybe) in the minors to continue to refine his skills and build his arm strength.

   If Norris isn't quite ready, then Miguel Castro is even farther away.  The 20 year old has had a phenomenal rise after being signed as an unheralded free agent in January of 2012.  Visa problems delayed his stateside debut until the summer of 2013, and he has been on a helium rise ever since.
   Stats from the lower minors can be deceiving, but some of Castro's are mind-boggling:  9.3 K/9, 0.99 WHIP, and a K/BB ratio of almost 3 to 1 over the course of three seasons.  Last season, he pitched at three levels, and seemed to get better with each promotion.  With a fastball that can touch 99 (it's reported the Blue Jays have clocked him as high as 102), minor league hitters have been overmatched against him.  And this is not the first time Alex Anthopoulos has mentioned Castro - at the state of the franchise event last month, he suggested that we could be seeing Castro's heat in the Blue Jays bullpen sooner, rather than later. Having had success with a similar move with Aaron Sanchez last year, Castro could be a key part of the Blue Jays pennant push this year.

   So, given that, why am I preaching caution?
  For starters, Castro's highest Innings Pitched total is 80, which came last year.  He hasn't even pitched a year of full season ball yet, starting last year in short season Vancouver. Using the 30 inning increase per year guideline for young arms, Castro should throw about 110-120 innings this season (he was on a pitch limit of between 60 and 70 last year).  His arm is still developing, and he still is at a high risk for developing the dreaded UCL tear.
   Granted, Anthopoulos has never mentioned Castro being a starter this year, but he does seem tempted to give into the temptation to have Castro follow the path Sanchez took last year.  My only problem with that is that Sanchez has thrown about 350 innings as a minor leaguer, Castro has thrown half that many.
   And I acknowledge that pitch counts and innings alone don't lead to torn UCL's; other factors, like playing year round and in multiple leagues, and faulty pitching mechanics are just as culpable.  From what I can tell, Castro has not pitched as much as some young Americans have by his age, and his mechanics look relatively clean.  He has no history of elbow issues - that we know of. So, from a Tommy John standpoint, perhaps Castro is actually a lower risk that Norris is.  Warming up and pitching several times a week may cause more wear and tear on his young arm than starting, though.

  Again, so why am I not in favour of AA's bullpen plan for Castro?  It comes down to a good starting pitcher having more value to a team than a good reliever.  About the only knock on Castro to this point has been the lack of development of his secondary pitches, but his 97 MPH fastball has lessened his reliance on them to this point.  As he moves up the minor league ladder, he will need to learn to refine and command them with greater effectiveness.  And he won't learn to do that pitching in a major league bullpen, where he will rely on his fastball even more.  Would he be lights out in the Blue Jays bullpen this year?  There's every reason to believe that he could be - if he can stand up to the workload, but that also puts his development as a starter back.

   What should the plan for Castro be?  I'm not in Florida, and I'm not a scout/front office type, but what makes the most sense to me, given his age and experience, is to let him stay in Florida and pitch in High A for Dunedin, like he did last year.  If he pitches well, move him up to New Hampshire once the weather warms up in June.  If his ability and performance dictates it, allow him to move up as far as he can go.

   There is no denying Castro has been impressive thus far, even though he has only pitched two innings.  Would I rather see him in the bullpen now, or in the rotation sometime around mid-season next year?  That's a tough question.  Given his age and where he's at on the developmental curve, I would prefer the more cautious approach.  Anthopoulos has rolled the dice many times over the course of his tenure as the Blue Jays GM, taking players that other teams shied away from because of injury and/or college commitments, and that group is steadily making its way up the minor league ladder.  Since this is a make or break year for him, it's understandable that his preference is to win now, because he will likely have a new boss by season's end, and if he doesn't end the Majors' longest playoff drought by then, it won't matter anyway, because Rogers will likely pull the plug on him.  As a Blue Jays lifer who is in it for the long run, I hope that some of the other bullpen arms in camp jump up and make AA come to his senses.

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