Padres' Simon Castro Seeks Short Cal League Stay

PEORIA, Ariz.—The Padres always believed that strapping righthander Simon Castro had the potential to become something special. They just didn't think it would happen so quickly for the 22-year-old.

"Simon has made more progress from where he started to where he is now than anyone that I have seen in 27 years of doing this," Padres minor league pitching coordinator Mike Couchee said. Couchee has worked with Castro since he signed with the team out of the Dominican Republic in May 2006.

Last year Castro emerged as the best pitcher for low Class A Fort Wayne, a club that won a minor league-best 94 games and cruised to the Midwest League title. He struck out a league-leading 157 batters over 140 innings, while ranking second among MWL hurlers in opponent average (.226) and WHIP (1.10).

Castro had demonstrated raw ability—not to mention the raw velocity to strike batters out—in previous stints in the Rookie-level Arizona and short-season Northwest leagues. But last season was easily his best performance yet.

According to the Padres, Castro's fastball ranges from 93-97 mph, settling in at 94-95. He has developed his two-seam fastball into a groundball-inducing pitch, while his four-seamer hums along more rapidly and entices batters to swing at pitches in their eyes. He throws a quality slider and an improving changeup.

"Right now, his fastball and slider are big league pitches," Couchee said.

Boy To Man

Castro attributes his new level of success to a growing maturity.

"I think the big thing for me was I was able to focus on each pitch better than I did previously," Castro said. "The years before, I was so young I lost focus sometimes in games, which caused me to get wild."

The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Castro has always had the velocity to be a major league pitcher, but the organization helped him harness his power and improve his ability to throw strikes.

"His command improved so much over the last year, but it didn't all come at once," Couchee said. "He's gotten better every year, but to me the big reason for his success was the command."

In 2008, Castro walked 29 batters in 65 innings for short-season Eugene. Last season, he walked 37 in his 140 innings—or just eight more than he had the year before in less than half the number of innings.

No one can deny Castro's raw talent. But people who are around him every day believe that what separates him from others is an unrelenting work ethic and mental ability.

Many players look at calisthenics, particularly in spring training, as a way to ease into the day while catching up with their teammates. However, Castro's level of determination is evident on his face as he tries to get the most out of every stretch and goes all out in even the most mundane shuttle drill.

"You have to understand why you are doing something—not just do it," Castro said. "I'm always trying to understand why I am doing something and how it will help me."

Classic Projection Pitcher

When Castro signed with the Padres he was considered someone with potential, but also someone who was lacking quite a bit of polish. It didn't help that he signed at age 17, a year older than is typical for premium Latin American prospects.

"I didn't really know anything about pitching," Castro said about his amateur days. "I had the talent when I signed, but I didn't know how to use it. The difference is, now I am starting to learn how to use my talent."

Grady Fuson, former Padres vice president of scouting and player development, knows just how far Castro has come in four seasons.

Fuson was particularly impressed with his progress at the end of last year, saying, "He is the poster boy of what young, raw pitchers with that much velocity need to do: scale back, learn mechanics, get consistency and start to build a more consistent delivery. He has an unlimited ceiling and is very intelligent."

Castro didn't know a word of English when he signed with San Diego but is now comfortable enough to conduct interviews in the language and serve as a translator and teacher for his Spanish-speaking teammates.

"First, I always want to try to be a good teammate," Castro said. "And the best way to do that is to learn to speak English. Also, it helps me to learn and is really the only way that I could get better from listening to all the coaches that we have here. I can improve much more quickly, which I think I have."

The Padres intend to be aggressive with Castro's development this season, which may entail a jump over Lake Elsinore and straight to Double-A San Antonio. With the Missions, he could put up another dominating season in the pitcher-friendly environment of San Antonio's Wolff Stadium.

On Castro's to-do list for 2010: improve his changeup. It's come a long way but needs to become a more consistent pitch for him to reach his potential on the big league level, which some have indicated is as a No. 2 starter.

But for Castro, the goal going into the oncoming season is the same as the last.

"My focus is going to be like what I did last year—focus on every start, every inning and every pitch," said a smiling Castro after finishing off some long sprints.

"Every year I have gotten better and I will this year, too."

John Conniff is a freelance writer
 based in Washington, D.C.