Castro Reaffirms Astros' Faith In First Pro Season




HOUSTON—If Jason Castro has done one thing in his 13 months in the Astros organization, it's been eliminating the need for the familiar expression "for a catcher" qualifying his attributes.

For instance, Castro isn't a good hitter for a catcher.

No, the Astros' 2008 first-round pick is just becoming a good hitter. Period.
Entering the season, the lefthanded-hitting backstop was the top prospect in a thin farm system, a title he seemed likely to retain following a strong campaign split between two levels. He hit .309/.399/.517 for high Class A Lancaster, a hitter's paradise, before being promoted to Corpus Christi.

With the Hooks, Castro has seen a little regression in his power numbers while playing in a home park that features constant seaside breezes that make life difficult for lefthanded batters. Yet he has maintained his average, batting .304/.358/.405 through July.

"Starting this year, my first full season, I didn't really know what to expect," Castro said. "The way things have turned out has been what I had hoped for."

In the Astros' first draft with Ed Wade as general manager and Bobby Heck as scouting director, the organization used the 10th overall selection on Castro, a catcher out of Stanford. They left the more expensive pick, slugger Justin Smoak, on the board, to the dismay of many Houstonians.

And while Smoak has worked his way up to Triple-A in the Rangers' organization, Castro is making Wade's and Heck's first addition to a depleted system look like a solid one.

Castro made his Texas League debut on June 10, roughly 11 months after he signed. He aided a pitching turnaround in Corpus Christi while seeing steady but unspectacular results at the plate. In July, he turned it on offensively with a .313/.380/.446 line for the month.

"He's starting to swing the bat much better at the Double-A level," Astros assistant general manager Ricky Bennett said. "He's starting to show power to all fields, and gap power."

Castro's quick navigation of the offensive learning curve has come in contrast to his previous development.

Injury set him back in a rough sophomore year at Stanford, and it was not until late in his collegiate career that he got the sense of what he could mean to a professional franchise.

"Things started to turn around, and I started realizing that I had a chance to be a decent-round pick after I went to the Cape Cod League and played well there," Castro said. "I had a good year my junior year, and it probably wasn't until the middle of my junior year that I thought I had the possibility to be a first-round pick."

Standing Out

Castro isn't tall for a catcher. He's just tall.

At 6-foot-3, he towers over many of his positional peers and, at just 22 years old and 195 pounds, has room to pack on additional weight to achieve more of a catcher's build.

"I plan on trying to put on some weight in the offseason and try to get a little stronger, not only to help my performance on the field but also increase my longevity," Castro said.

While Bennett has not stressed a weight gain mandate for his top farmhand, he can see the growth coming.

"In time, as he grows and matures, I think he's going to put on good natural weight," Bennett said. "Going through his first full season, he's going to lose some weight. Obviously, playing in the Texas League, that's going to have an effect."

Stamina and health permitting, the Astros expect Castro to play in the Arizona Fall League this offseason. After that, it's up in the air. The Astros have no obvious long-term solution at catcher—not after 2006 first-rounder Max Sapp struggled on the field and then with a dreadful bout of meningitis. And not after J.R. Towles couldn't handle an everyday role in 2008.

"I don't really have any specific goals," Castro said. "I obviously would like to get there as soon as I could and be able to stay there as long as I can. The earlier I'm able to get there, the better, but you really can't focus on anything too much other than going out and playing and letting your performance speak for itself."

Defensive Chops

Nobody is ever called "smart for a catcher." No backhanded compliment is needed for the extension of the manager on the field.

But Castro, one gets the sense, is smart even for a catcher.

"The one thing I'm impressed with him is that he's able to take any instruction and put it in play right away," said Hooks manager Luis Pujols, a former big league catcher with the Astros.

Upon Castro's arrival, Corpus Christi's team ERA, which had been the worst in the Texas League, dropped a full point over the course of a month. Castro credited some of his experience at spring training with helping him into a comfortable rapport with the staff. But his game-calling required fine-tuning when he arrived.

"What I've improved on the most is being comfortable with catching every day and working with the pitching staff, coming up with different strategies to attack hitters," Castro said.

Defensively, he comes in slightly on the wrong side of the league average, throwing out 26 percent of basestealers at Double-A, though he had better numbers in the low minors. And according to Pujols, who managed the 2002 Tigers, he continues to progress at blocking balls.

Castro will not turn 23 until the middle of the 2010 season, and if he can continue his defensive progression and add to his burgeoning extra-base power, he'll celebrate that birthday as a key component of the Astros' future.