They banged 97. The Reds and the Dodgers radar guns, time and again. Minor league players who were spectators at the spring training game on a back field at the Goodyear complex had gathered to watch the new guy, Luis Castillo. It didn’t take long to trade knowing grins and giggles. Castillo dazzled: no walks, many strikeouts. Weak ground balls, pop-ups. The young right-hander carved up the Double-A Dodgers.

What stood out was the control Castillo possessed over his off-speed pitch, clocking in at 80-83 mph. Cambio, the players whispered, the Spanish word for a changeup. Cambio.

Standing there, close enough to read the radar guns and hear the murmurs, it crossed my mind that Luis Castillo might prove to be the team’s best acquisition of the rebuilding process.

Photo: WKRC

The San Francisco Giants signed 19-year-old Luis Miguel Castillo out of the Dominican Republic in 2012. Castillo arrived with two pitches, so the Giants assigned the 6’2″ right-hander to the bullpen. The Miami Marlins acquired Castillo in a trade before the 2015 season, asked him to learn a curveball, and converted him to a starter. He pitched for the Marlins’ A/A+ affiliates as a 22-year-old.

Give the Marlins credit: The starting rotation suited Castillo. His control improved in 2015 and again in 2016. But the greater command and new role also brought fewer strikeouts. As a 23-year-old still pitching at the A+ level, Castillo struck out fewer than seven batters per nine innings. That’s low for a pitcher throwing a 95-98 mph fastball. That slippage in K/9 is surely what allowed the Marlins to consider trading Castillo, who at the time rated the #1 or #2 prospect in their system.

This January, the Reds obliged and sent an established pitcher Dan Straily to Miami for three players. Reliever Austin Brice and outfielder Isaiah White were in the deal. Luis Castillo was the presumed headliner. Scouts were split on Castillo, but most saw in him the potential to become a major league starter, maybe even a good one.

The Reds wisely kept Castillo in a starter’s role. But crucially, they had him give up his curveball in favor of a slider to complement his heater and changeup. That plan has worked.

Oh, what heights Castillo has hit.

The past three months, Luis Castillo has dominated the Southern League. Based on strikeouts and walks, he’s the equal of major leaguers Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer in their respective leagues. In 80.1 innings Castillo has struck out 81 and walked only 13, overmatching Double-A hitters.

Photo: WKRC

In his last start for Pensacola, Castillo took a no-hitter into the 7th inning. The appearance before that, Castillo struck out 13 batters and walked just one. His ERA is 2.58 backed up by an FIP of 2.56 and xFIP of 2.70. There’s no undue luck to credit for his success. After just 14 starts for Pensacola, Castillo is ready for a promotion.

As for his pitch portfolio, Luis Castillo features that blazing 95-98 mph fastball. Castillo’s changeup remains a devastating swing-miss pitch and when batters make contact, it’s usually a ground ball. Think Edinson Volquez with control.

“Luis’s changeup is a plus big-league pitch,” said Joe Hudson, his catcher in Pensacola. “That’s his pitch, that’s his go-to. All his pitches move down for the most part. If I need a ground ball, I’m calling for a changeup.”

But it’s Castillo’s growing mastery of the slider – a pitch he’s developed since spring training – that accelerated the 24-year-old’s path to tonight’s start in the big leagues. Yes, Bryan Price urges caution, noting Castillo’s slider is still evolving. But slider is the pitch Jeff Brantley wanted to talk about during Wednesday’s Reds radio broadcast. Brantley credited it for Castillo’s development jump, comparing it to Wandy Peralta’s sudden improvement from last year to this one. The slider allows Castillo to strikeout more hitters than he did with the Marlins.

By age, Luis Castillo fits amid the cadre of young pitchers working their way through the Reds system. He’s older than Cody Reed, Brandon Finnegan, Rookie Davis, Sal Romano and Robert Stephenson, but he’s younger than Amir Garrett and Michael Lorenzen. Less than two years separates the oldest from youngest in that group. In recent seasons, Castillo has been a bit older than average in his leagues, likely due to transitioning from reliever to starter. He won’t be an elder tonight at Nationals Park.

In explaining why the young Dominican got the nod for the start, Price said it was because Castillo was already on the 40-man roster and because Castillo throws strikes. Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson take note.

So overture, curtain, lights. On with the Luis Castillo show.

Photo: Pensacola Blue Wahoos

Beyond the debut of a promising pitcher, there’s something else to watch in the next few days. An even more important curtain might be rising tonight.

Does Luis Castillo’s call-up signal a new phase in the Reds rebuilding process?

Maybe. The front office deserves credit for putting a 24-year-old Double-A pitcher on the mound instead of another weary, washed up veteran. The Doug Fisters and Tim Lincecums are still free-floating in the netherworld of unsigned pitchers. It must have been tempting, before the last two weeks, to consider bringing on a well-worn arm. Sure, the team already had a couple too many of those in their rotation, but Dick Williams could have made it one pitcher worse and he didn’t.

Losing eleven out of twelve has a way of clarifying the landscape, particularly the horizon. Two weeks ago, the Reds were fresh off a glorious 4-game sweep of the Cardinals, one game below .500 and two out of first place. But any flicker of hope fans or the front office might have harbored was extinguished by a tidal wave of losses. If anyone had taken their eye off the rebuilding ball, the horrors of the last 14 days should produce the needed focus.

So let’s not exaggerate the on-field importance of tonight’s start. Full-on expectation tempering is recommended. One appearance won’t be a reliable indicator of how Luis Castillo will perform as a major league starter. Amplified nerves, the lack of familiarity with batters and they with him, are all one-off factors. And the Reds have upped the degree of difficulty for Castillo’s major league debut. Not only is it on the road, but Dusty Baker’s offense leads the NL in average, power and runs scored. Castillo’s mound opponent will be Stephen Strasburg, one of the top ten pitchers in baseball.

Commit this sentence to memory and repeat it tonight as needed: Luis Castillo is a kid making his first start above the Double-A level on the road against one of the best teams in baseball.

But beyond the narrow on-field assessment of one pitcher and one game lies the question of wholehearted commitment to rebuilding the starting rotation. For nearly three months, we’ve watched through partly covered eyes an über-popular 40-year-old struggle through 14 starts. We’ve squinted hard and cocked our heads in service to the illusion that Scott Feldman and Tim Adleman really aren’t that bad in the rotation after all. And somehow, there were four starts by Asher Wojciechowski and four more by Lilsalverto Bonilla. What we’ve seen with the starting pitchers isn’t sorting or rebuilding.

It’s time to remake the rotation with a single-minded focus on seasons to come.

Perhaps Luis Castillo’s start (no matter how it goes) is the leading edge. Homer Bailey follows tomorrow and Brandon Finnegan’s return is imminent. More steps can and must be taken. Maybe we’ll look back on June 23, 2017 as an inflection point toward greater heights.

The night of nights when the Reds starting rotation became more future than futile.

Luis Castillo isn’t a savior. He’s a glimpse.

42 Responses

  1. Why oh Why

    Huge fan of this guy, but goodness could we have picked a harder debut for him to test his stuff against? Throw em into the fire…I guess

    • The Duke

      The upshot if he gets hit around a bit is, “Hey, that’s maybe the best offense in baseball, they beat up Jake Arrieta last week too, it happens”

      And if he has a good game, “You just hung with the best offense in baseball, you have what it takes”

      Whereas if you debut against the Phillies and get crushed, not a lot of spin you can put on that.

  2. bouwills

    I wish Luis the best tonight. In any event, he’ll know what he needs to work on to stick in the Reds rotation after facing the formidable Nats.

  3. cfd3000

    This is a positive move, no question, both for Castillo in particular and the Reds’ young and developing pitchers in general. My only concern is that if he struggles mightily tonight it may hinder future opportunities for him and other young starters, even though as you rightly point out Steve this is a one off and in some ways meaningless sample. Of course, all that is moot if he pitches anywhere between decent and great. Here’s hoping.

  4. sandman

    I liked the comparisons to current ML pitchers Sale, etc. But I can’t help but focus on what was said about the Dusty Baker led Wash. Nationals. One of the best teams in baseball and their offense leads in several categories. Their pitching must be good as well to reach such heights. It makes me wonder what those Reds teams could’ve accomplished under Baker had he been allowed to do whatever it is he wanted to do that Reds mgmt didn’t want him to do. Apparently there was a difference of opinion between them and Baker on how to do things. Maybe Dusty knows what he’s doing. Now, I fully realize that Baker hasn’t led Wash. to a World Series championship just yet so I will be watching closely what happens with them. But it seems as if Dusty is capable of bringing a championship to a city/club. I honestly believe those Reds teams could’ve won a championship under Baker had he been allowed to do things his way. One could even argue that the difference in opinion between Baker & Reds mgmt MIGHT of contributed to the eventual losing that led the Reds to start this rebuild. If Dusty had won a championship or two with Cincinnati he might very well still be managing the team and possibly still playing winning baseball. But we’ll never know and it’s all bcuz of a difference in opinion. I know that there will be those that disagree with me and y’all could pick apart my argument using numbers upon numbers. I don’t care about all that. I just can’t help but get a little caught up in What If. But that ain’t gonna accomplish anything. What’s done is done and this is where things stand right now…more losing through a rebuild that is starting to feel like it’s dragging on (at least for me anyway). I know the Reds are trying to do things differently by investing money in all those resources including scouting and I don’t doubt that it’ll eventually pay off in hopefully several championships for the club and city….one day. I’ll be a little upset if all these efforts don’t lead to some titles bcuz I’ll be right back to what could’ve happened had Dusty been allowed to do what he wanted. Those Baker led Reds teams should have won a championship or two. And it makes me wonder if the reason for that not happening is the difference in opinion. I know it sounds as if I’m beating a dead horse here so I guess I’ll shut up and let y’all have at it.

    • Chuck Schick

      In Washington, Dusty inherited one of the most talented teams in baseball. He did nothing to build the Nationals. To his credit, they’re very good…but they likely would be good if Bryan Price or Conan O’Brien were their manager. Talent wins.

      In 2012, Dusty had a team that was good enough to win a championship. Unfortunately the Giants also had a team that was good enough. Including the playoffs, they played each other 12 times and each team won 6. The run differential was .91 per game. Unfortunately, someone had to lose.

      To Dusty’s everlasting credit, when given the talent he gets to the playoffs….but his overall net impact, like virtually every other manager in history, is negligible

      • da bear

        baseball managers have less influence than football coaches. but they have an influence. they need to maximize the use of their resources. and they can coach a player in the background, either psychologically, or with form (baseball swing, spotting bad mechanics with pitching deliveries, etc.etc.).

        dusty was good at maintaining a calmness during the ups and downs of baseball season. he was also terrible at developing young talent, often wasting service time of young talent like the todd frazier’s or devon mesoraco’s…and coddling his kids such as chapman when chapman could have been used far more effectively for the ballclub, whether as a 5 to 6 inning starter 34 times a year, or being used in situations that mattered, such as tied ball games, rather than employing him often when there were 2 or 3 run leads in the 9th inning. (#kill the worthless save stat already please).

        and dusty has shown (yes small sample size, but enough to display) an inability to manage his resources when he had better resources at his disposal, such as his time with the Giants, the Reds 2009-2013, and now the Nationals (who have yet to win a playoff series under his direction despite being the favorite and having loaded hitting and pitching).

    • Mike Adams

      Success (wins) is about 98% player talent and 2% on the manager.
      The most clueless, inept manager might make decisions that lose 3, 4 or 5 games but the right talent can overcome that.
      Another way to put it, the best manager in the world cannot take a bunch of misfits and make them winners. But a talented team can overcome a bad manager and win anyway.

      • da bear

        The most competent managers may eke out an extra 5 to 10 wins a year versus status quo. The most inept incompetent manager can make decisions costing 20 or more games. The differential in talent of some MLB divisions is not that disparate; thus the manager has more influence than you give them credit for.

        In a situation like 2017 NL Central where there is no dominant team, where each team has flaws and strengths, the manager makes a much greater difference than 2017 NL East where you have three very flawed teams, a Mets team decimated by injuries, and the Nats. In our scenario being played out, the manager matters. Price is probably a -5 to -10 versus Madden in 2017 alone. Longer term, even a greater negative. Madden would have allowed youngsters a chance to flourish or flounder, allowed the Reds to accelerate the learning curve and development of younger talent, to enable mgmt to make more informed decisions.

      • jazzmanbbfan

        Is there any evidence to back up your claim that the most incompetent managers may cost their team 20+ games and the best managers bring 5-10 more wins a year? I’m genuinely interested because I’ve never heard that managers (good or bad) actually have that much impact on wins and losses. I admit I find that hard to believe.

      • Chuck Schick

        I’ve never seen a study that showed anything more than +3 -3. In general, no one that egregiously incompent manages a team and baseball isn’t a game where you can generally outscheme people.

      • Alex

        Well. I see alot of complaints about maddon on Cubs comment boards. 20 games sounds like alot. Especially because he could make the perceived “wrong” decision and it work out (game 7 of the world series). Or the perceived “right” choice and it not work out.

    • Chuck Schick

      While Dusty had more influence…and likely more contractionally guaranteed power than most managers, the Chapman decision was ultimately above his pay grade. Managers just don’t have that kind of unilateral authority. It’s a lot easier to replace a manager than to find another Chapman.

      Given Chapman’s erosion in last year’s playoffs, his complaints about over use and his lingering injuries this year, it was likely the right decision. It’s almost impossible to hit a 102 MPH pitch…which isn’t sustainable when used multiple innings over the course of the year. I think history is vindicating that decision.

    • Big56dog

      yeah did not get the point about had he been allowed to do whatever it is he wanted to do that Reds mgmt didn’t want him to do. Pretty vague, maybe mgmt. made him split Choo and Votto up in 2013 for fear of having a manager counter with a LH batter and consistently hit the worst possible RH bats between them.

    • Big56dog

      Sorry to pile on, but did management make him botch game 3 in 2012. One of the stupidest moves ever was pitching to a batter with 2 outs runners on 2nd and 3rd in the 10th when the closer was in the on- deck circle. Rolen does not help out by making an error, but could have at least gotten Romo out of the game, Game 4 and 5 the team let get away.
      Classic Baker was post game 5 of last year when his talented team got out managed again- said something to the effect Dodgers will be limited due to using their closer and ace so much against his team.

    • Big56dog

      Before Price, I believe Dusty was the only Reds manager allowed to manage 3 full losing seasons since the Great Depression.

  5. IndyRedMan

    I would think the Reds had their alltime highest payroll under Dusty? He had more then enough chances! The guy has prob managed more talent then anyone else in the modern era. Washington is absolutely loaded and got lucky w/Murphy (they tried for BP first) and nobody expected Zimmerman to have a fountain of youth season like this. Scherzer is prob the best pitcher in baseball and Strasburg is another #1 guy. They’ll prob buy whatever bullpen they need by the deadline. Dusty has zero excuses!

  6. IndyRedMan

    Excited to see Castillo tonite! Hopefully Mahle will do well at Lville and they’ll both get some run with the Reds this year! They need to bring Reed back too and see if he’s learned anything? They already know what Feldman and Adleman are going to do. Actually Feldman to Milw makes sense or some contender somewhere?

  7. Sliotar

    Scott Feldman is not 25 years old or thereabouts, but for what he was signed for (1 year/$2.3 million), he has outperformed (4.16 xFIP, 1.3 WAR).

    Just in the NL Central, here are some familiar starting pitchers he is in line with on xFIP and outperforming in WAR:

    Kyle Hendricks
    Michael Wacha
    Adam Wainwright
    Matt Garza
    Gerrit Cole

    Guys like Davis, Reed and Stephenson can’t pitch well enough to take Feldman’s spot in the rotation. Garrett would likely be back in AAA with many other clubs.

    Now, it’s starting a AA kid in the toughest spot around in 2017 (at Nationals).

    If Feldman isn’t flipped (or even if he is?), a case could be made to bring him back in 2018. This pitching staff is still in the experimenting stage, no where near sorted. Even Finnegan doesn’t have enough “seat time” to confirm him as a guy who could produce for a contending team in 2018.

    • citizen54

      Ya for me the jury is still out on Finnegan. He is anything but a sure thing at this point.

      • IndyRedMan

        His era since August 1st last year is 2.50 (64.2 ip). His changeup was greatly improved in the 2nd half last year and his velocity was up in April. I’m pretty high on Finnegan….think he could potentially as good as anyone we have except Lorenzen.

      • citizen54

        He’s also had 34 walks in those 64.2 innings. That 4.77 BB/9 would currently put him in the bottom 3 of all qualified pitchers and last in the NL.

    • da bear

      feldman at $2.3MM/yr is not bad, a serviceable #5 guy. think he’s getting more than that though thanks to incentive laden bonuses….just like Storen at $2 or $3MM a year is a good deal, but thanks to being paid an extra $100K per game used and other $500K bonuses for closing set number of games, his salary balloons to a point where Storen is not that great a signing, a waste of money.

      not sure if RLN has shone the spotlight on feldman’s contract, someone wrote about Storen’s last month.

  8. The Duke

    Adleman and Feldman have a 4.30 ERA and a 4.20 ERA respectively. They may not be the flashiest SP in the NL, but they have been effective. A whole lot more effective than the “Filthy Five” someone at RLN wanted to go with to start the year.

    • IndyRedMan

      Well factor in Arroyo the Lollipop Kids numbers while you’re at it because nobody wanted him

      • The Duke

        I wasn’t defending Arroyo, I was debating a thought that Adleman or Feldman somehow aren’t doing well or aren’t worthy of a rotation spot. Every single team in the majors would take a SP putting up those numbers at their salaries.

      • IndyRedMan

        You’re right. The “fab” five wasn’t ready or hurt anyway. An ideal start for 2018 would find the Reds with 4 starters better then Feldman and resign Feldman for 1 year w/Adleman as the long man.

    • docmike

      Each member of “The Filthy Five” either never got a chance, or were rushed too soon.

      Cody Reed was given one start, against the Chicago Cubs. When that start did not go well, he did not get a second chance.

      Robert Stephenson has yet to have a start, even though Wojo and Bonilla have combined for 8 between them.

      Amir Garrett was put in the rotation based on a strong spring training. He has clearly shown that he still needs more minor league seasoning.

      Rookie Davis was thrown into the rotation way too early, since he had yet to master AAA batters. Predictably, he struggled over 5 forgettable starts.

      Sal Romano received one fill-in start. He, too, showed he still needs more time in the minors.

  9. IndyRedMan

    Didn’t Castillo pitch against the Reds regulars in the last spring game? If so…wonder what they thought about him?

    Overall its pretty exciting! We have a lot of arms coming back and next year could actually be pretty interesting if Adleman (and/or Feldman?) is the worst guy in the rotation!

  10. wizeman

    Really looking forward to this. Asa I said yesterday almost seems like season starting.

  11. big5ed

    If the Reds get Bailey, Finnegan and Desclafani back, then they only need 2 of Castillo, Stephenson, Reed, Garrett, Davis, and Romano to produce to have a decent starting rotation. Disco is sketchy, but they still have 6 candidates (7 if you include Tyler Mahle) for the 3 rotation spots next year, even if they don’t keep Adleman and/or Feldman.

    I’d like to see almost all the young guys, but especially Reed and Stephenson, do some very serious weight training on their legs/core this off-season. Increased strength will lead to a lot more consistency with their pitching motions, and (we hope) a lot more command and control.

  12. Tom

    When I was a sophomore football player, new to varsity foodball, I was a linebacker on the scout defense. It was a soggy morning during two-a-day practices. The starting offense called a give play to the monstrous senior fullback, a college recruit. I went in to tackle him and he hit me like a freight-train. Luckily, he also tripped over me and I got the tackle. I slowly got pulled to my feet but noticed it was very dark… because I was looking out of the ear hole of my helmet. The coach who ran the scout defense ran over to me and was pumped up I made the tackle (and was probably glad I was alive since he grew up with my mom). Then he said, “That’s hand down one of the hardest hitting football players you’ll ever face and you got him to the ground – if you can take that hit, you can take anything.” I believed him and the rest is (local) legend (in my own mind)

  13. docmike

    My earlier post:

    Each member of “The Filthy Five” either never got a chance, or were rushed too soon.

    Cody Reed was given one start, against the Chicago Cubs. When that start did not go well, he did not get a second chance.

    Robert Stephenson has yet to have a start, even though Wojo and Bonilla have combined for 8 between them.

    Amir Garrett was put in the rotation based on a strong spring training. He has clearly shown that he still needs more minor league seasoning.

    Rookie Davis was thrown into the rotation way too early, since he had yet to master AAA batters. Predictably, he struggled over 5 forgettable starts.

    Sal Romano received one fill-in start. He, too, showed he still needs more time in the minors.

  14. IndyRedMan

    Definitely. I could see where he was really trying to keep the ball down vs Tampa but you have to throw strikes. He needs to start throwing that changeup for strikes again like he did in April!

  15. bouwills

    1 year ago, DeSclafani had already made 3 starts. He’s probably 5 more weeks ( minimum) from his 2017 deput. I’m not sure when he’ll make his first start in 2018. Even if Homer answers the bell this weekend, until he’s made 10 ML starts or 6 quality starts, I think a lot of questions about strength & durability have to be answered before penciling him in the 2018 rotation. Finnegan is a surer bet . There’s no much injury history with Brandon before this. Adleman most likely can give the Reds about what he did last year & has this year in 2018. Garrett has been roughed up a lot, but that’s not unusual . I believe after a short stint at Louisville he’ll return to the rotation for this year & next. Feldman will not likely be signed for next year & will probably be gone in 5 weeks. As I count , Reds have about 3 sp for 2018 that they can rely on right now.

  16. sandman

    To all those who questioned what Dusty didn’t get to do….I’m not sure exactly. All I remember hearing was that Baker and Reds upper mgmt were at odds over how to do things. I distinctly remember someone here at Redlegnation (I think) saying that it’s a pretty big deal when the manager and upper mgmt aren’t on the same page. For specific game situations that have been pointed out, I think that’s nitpicking. But I believe I get what was meant by that…that Baker got to do pretty much what he wanted to do. So, there you have it, there was something that he wasn’t allowed to do…and I don’t know what it was.

  17. citizen54

    Definitely rushed up to the Reds. Perfect example of why you don’t make roster decisions based upon a couple weeks of spring training.

  18. Reds Fan In FL

    Per Baseball-reference: There are 24 managers who have managed 40 or more playoff games. Most of them have managed after the first playoff expansion in 1969. Dusty Baker ranks 24th in terms of playoff W-L% at .420 (21-29). I think he has been blessed with talented teams that allow him to get into the playoffs but then is unable win when it counts. Or to put it another way, he gets out-managed when facing an equally talented team

  19. Still a Red

    2010…Reds offense is great…get no-hitted by Phils in game 1…offense never got off the ground. Not going to blame Baker for that. 2012…Reds pitching is great…win 2 in San Fran (after losing Cueto in game 1)…lose a squeaker at home in game 3 (maybe you can hang that on Baker), but then lose the next 2 (not going to blame Baker for that either!). 2013, Reds coast into the wild card slot…lose 4 in a row to a rising Pittsburgh team (you might be able to blame Baker for what appeared to be a lack of urgency by the team…I remember Cozart and others saying don’t worry, we’re in).

    Not only Baker couldn’t bring a championship to DC with good teams…Johnson and Williams couldn’t either…and note, there have been no fights in the dug out.

    People here say he mishandled young players by not playing them…in Chicago he got slammed for using young players too much and burning them out too early.

  20. Still a Red

    Interesting comment by Castillo after the game explaining his 5 walks…the umps call a tighter strike zone in the majors. Seems to be a problem with all our young pitchers for some time…Cingrani, Stephenson, Lamb,Sampson, Reed, Davis, Romano, now Garrett. Even Finnigan throws too many balls. Seems like an awful lot of talented arms to burn through without any one of them being ‘ready for the majors’. What’s up?

    Bring a pitcher up and let him take his knocks and he’s been rushed. Give them a little taste and ease him in, and he’s not being given an opportunity. Can’t win.