Castro The Astro

Former Stanford catcher is proud of his defense




HONOLULU—For the casual fan of Hawaii Winter Baseball, players aren't quite household names yet, so it's difficult to remember who belongs to what organization and where these players come from.

But for Jason Castro, it's pretty easy: He's Castro the Astro from Castro Valley, Calif.

The Astros selected Castro 10th overall in June out of Stanford and assigned him to the North Shore Honu, where Castro is quickly making himself known. The lefthanded-hitting catcher ranks fourth in the league in hitting at .349 and third in on-base percentage at .453. He has two doubles and a homer in 43 at-bats through Oct. 20. He has nine walks and as many strikeouts.

But Castro just doesn't want to be known solely for his bat.

"I'd like to think that I pride myself on defense," he said. "I work hard trying to stay on top of my game, whether it be working on my receiving or having a strong arm behind the plate, throwing guys out. I'm working to refine my skills, as far as blocking and pitch-calling and things like that."

There is no questioning Castro's work ethic. During a stellar three-year career at Stanford, he was relegated to first base because there were other established catchers, and he even played outfield (including center field) in the Cape Cod League in 2007 in deference to Florida State's Buster Posey. Still, he made time to assure he wouldn't lose his catching skills.

"I've always been a catcher," he said. "That's what I was recruited as going into college. I just had some older guys in front of me. I got my catching in in fall ball. But my main position the first two years of school was first base. I put a lot of work in on the side, just making sure that I stayed up in my game catching. When it was my turn to fill the spot, I'd be ready for it."

He certainly was, as Castro helped lead Stanford to the College World Series as both a hitter and defensive-minded catcher, throwing out 40 percent of opposing basestealers.

And Castro didn't miss a beat upon signing with the Astros. He was assigned to the Tri-City ValleyCats of the short-season New York-Penn League, where he hit .275/.384/.383. BA ranked him as the NY-P's top prospect.

While many first-round picks waited up until the Aug. 15 signing deadline, Castro said signing relatively quickly (for a $2.07 million bonus) helped. After Stanford was eliminated from the CWS, he was signed and joined the ValleyCats by mid-July.

"It actually prepared me a lot to come out here, to get some at-bats, get some time catching professional pitchers," Castro said. "It's a little different than college. I think it was beneficial to sign early when I did and get out and start right away."

So anxious to get assimilated to the pro game, Castro looked forward to playing in HWB. He was familiar with the league's reputation as far back as the circuit's first stint from 1993 to 1997.

"I heard that this was a premier league," he said. "I heard there were some good players out there, so I was excited. I was ready to undergo the challenge of playing out here against some of the top players around the country in the minor leagues."

The league's competition has lived up to Castro's expectations.

"We're facing good pitchers everyday out here and that's a good challenge," he said. "That was one thing I was looking forward to."

Castro, who has been to Hawaii before on vacation with family and friends, said he also is looking forward to Hawaii's natural resources, like its beaches. He's already done the snorkeling bit at Hanauma Bay on Oahu's southeast shore. But he also wants to see the legendary surf that builds up as it gets closer to winter.

"I'm looking forward to going to the North Shore later to see some of the bigger waves," he said.

HAWAII FIVE-OH'S

• The leading hitter so far in HWB has been Tony Cruz, a 2007 draftee who has started to emerge as a prospect while converting from third base to catcher. A 26th-round pick out of Palm Beach (Fla.) CC last year, Cruz hit .299 in low Class A after being drafted last year, then was having a fine first full season with high Class A Palm Beach this season, batting .279/.316/.427 with eight homers in 89 games until a hand injury sidelined him in mid-July. Cruz was leading HWB in batting at .432 while playing eight of his 10 games behind the plate for the Sharks. He's also thrown out three of six opposing basestealers, and his arm strength is what led the Cardinals to try him as a catcher.

• Another HWB sleeper could be righthander Scott Shaw, also of the Sharks, whom the Mets drafted this year out of Illinois in the 13th round. Shaw had an ERA near 7.00 in three seasons at Illinois, but the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder had a great debut for the Mets at short-season Brooklyn (6-3, 2.80 with 79 strikeouts and 15 walks in 74 innings). He's following up in Hawaii, going 1-1, 1.72 with a 19-2 strikeout-walk ratio in 15 2/3 innings. Mets officials say Shaw has an 88-92 mph fastball with an average breaking ball and changeup, and he's thrown more strikes since signing.