Casto Might Be Moving Again

VIERA, Fla.--Coming out of Portland as a third-round pick of the Nationals in 2003, Kory Casto wasn't exactly a high-profile prospect.

There were a few expectations, but they were more like those of a corner outfielder who might hit for some power--not as a corner infielder who could also hit for average and pick it at third.

Fast-forward two years and a ton of hard work, and Casto is on the fast track in the organization. He ranks as the Nats' No. 5 prospect going into the season, and he working hard to build on his success at high Class A Potomac in 2005.

Casto batted .290-22-90 last year and played a solid third base after converting from the outfield in 2004 at low Class A Savannah. That came after he struggled defensively following the switch--and lost development time when he took a grounder off his left eye in Savannah.

"The position change over there was a challenge for me personally to show everybody that I could do it," Casto said. "After that first year in Savannah, a lot of people were skeptical about my defense, and then I got hit in the eye and I felt more doubts around me more than anything else.

"Everybody was kind of down on me playing over there, so I went out with something to prove. I wanted to show that I could be an above-average defensive third baseman. I wanted to show I could make those throws and that my footwork was all right. The thing that motivated me more than anything was that they didn't think I had the footwork to do it."

Prove it he did. The Potomac coaching staff, the Nationals brass and just about every scout who saw him last year raved about the strides he made, a key to a season when he was named to the Carolina League all-star team.

And as he heads to Double-A Harrisburg this season, Casto has answered any questions about his ability to handle third base, although he may eventually be moving again.

Another Change Of Plans

"He's a worker and I really like the way he plays over there," said a scout from an American League club. "He's got the desire to get better. I saw him maybe 10 times last year and he was always the last one heading to the clubhouse after infield. He'd easily take another 10 to 20 ground balls, just to get ready for a game."

But desire can only take you so far. The Nationals used the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft on Ryan Zimmerman, who was regarded as a once-in-a-generation defensive third baseman. He moved to the big leagues after just two months in the minor leagues, locking up third base in Washington for the foreseeable future.

There have been reports the Nationals will move Casto to second base, but at least for the moment those plans are on hold.

"We're going to keep him at third right now," farm director Andy Dunn said. "He's a special guy, not just because he can play, but because of the attitude and the effort. You could tell Kory Casto he's going to catch and at the end of the day, he's going to be a pretty good catcher.

"We need to let him hit. I'm not saying he's going to play second base in the future, I'm not saying he's going to play third base in the future, but we need him to continue to hit. He's athletic enough to play multiple positions, but we're going to let him focus on third base for now."

You can see Casto's effort each morning in minor league spring camp, as he heads in for extra hitting or extra ground balls before each day officially begins. For as much work as he puts in, Nationals roving infield coordinator Jose Alguacil has also been a key player in the transformation of outfielder to above-average defensive third baseman.

"I hadn't played the infield since little league and honestly didn't know what I was doing, so it was more of a repetition thing more than an athletic ability thing," Casto said. "Jose worked me hard and I just listened to everything he said, everything he was teaching me. We both really went out and worked hard, took a ton of ground balls and did everything we could to get my game better."

Two Worth Watching

Casto and shortstop Ian Desmond are expected to head up a star-studded team of prospects on the left side of the Senators' infield this season. The two are the ultimate contrast: a conversion college draft pick at third who has hit his way onto the Double-A roster, teamed up with a high school draft pick (third round, 2004) who split last season between Savannah and Potomac and didn't hit well at either stop (.250-7-38 in 515 at-bats overall).

But Desmond spent most of the spring in big league camp, just as he did last year. Though he didn't really show much offensively there either, the organization thinks he's ready to handle Eastern League pitching.

"There's no doubt it might come across as a little surprising," Dunn said. "But we really feel that Ian is ready for the next challenge. He is an above-average defensive shortstop with a good set of hitting tools. If he can control the strike zone like we believe he can, he can have some success in Double-A."

Added Casto: "It might surprise some people, but he can play, man. There's no question that guy can play."

So with both Casto and Desmond, the left side of the Senators' infield is one of the most intriguing places to watch in the minor leagues early in the season. Where either of the players ends up down the road is anyone's guess.