Castillo Getting Closer

Castillo struck out a season-high seven on Sunday

As an ace of the 2005 GCL Championship Yankees, then 18-year-old Francisco Castillo turned heads with his combination of an explosive fastball and solid command. Scouts saw bright things in his future, but in what role that future would find him pitching remained murky.

Castillo had the power fastball in place, but scouts wondered about the rest of his repertoire. In the lower levels, Castillo could get inexperienced batters out with his fastball, but he would need more to remain in the rotation.

As Latin America Coordinator Carlos Rios told PinstripesPlus in January, "He needs to come up with a third pitch. If he can't come up with that third pitch to go along with his fastball and changeup, I think he could be a stopper [closer]."

But if Castillo could master a breaking pitch, just how good could he be?

"If his breaking ball can develop the way we expect it can, Castillo has frontline stuff," pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras told PinstripesPlus in July of 2005. "He's already touching 95 MPH with his fastball and he could be really impressive with a consistent breaking ball."

Now 19-years-old and pitching in Staten Island, Francisco Castillo just may have taken one step closer to avoiding the closer role and ending that discussion altogether.

"He's got a good slider," said Staten Island manager Gaylen Pitts, but did not stop there in describing the breaking ball. "A real good slider. A plus slider."

"I feel comfortable with this pitch [the slider]," said Castillo. "I am working hard on this pitch. Last year I got it. I have it, this pitch, but now it is better the way it is now." Then Castillo smiled and added for emphasis, "Now it is better."

The combination of Castillo's new slider with his power fastball has already shown results in Staten Island. In five starts, including three piggy-back starts, Castillo has pitched to a 1.99 ERA while striking out 25 in 22 2/3 innings, a better strikeout ratio than in the GCL.

"With Castillo," pitching coach Carlos Chantres said, "he's got the ability to become a big league pitcher: he can throw all his pitches for strikes; his body type; consistency for pitching."

Castillo has come a long way by developing his breaking ball, but the young pitcher still has a lot further to go before moving on to the higher levels.

"Keeping the ball down," Pitts listed as one of Castillo's weaknesses. "Getting better at holding runners at first. He's gotta get quicker to home. They'll run all over him when he's in the higher leagues. They're running on him now so you know what they'll do to him upstairs, so he's got to get better at that. He's got to get the ball down more consistently. Because balls that they miss here, they're going to hit up there if they're upstairs."

Leaving the fastball up has led to Castillo, despite strong overall numbers, allowing nearly as many hits as innings pitched this season. The pitcher admitted he was working on that problem.

"After I go throw, I leave it up," Castillo listed as what he could improve from his start in the season. "All the time when I throw. [To] the [right] hander. [To] the left-hander. All the time and now I'm working on it and the thing is very good. I feel very comfortable."

Castillo also could improve another pitch in his arsenal, as Manager Pitts pointed out, "His change needs some work. Doesn't change speed good enough."

The change-up is always a difficult pitch for a young pitcher to master, but Castillo is happy with his progress and feels comfortable throwing it.

"All the time it [the change-up] is good," Castillo said. "Last year and this year. So now I got my experience and it is better. I'm working with it."

Castillo continues to change what he throws, but his approach to pitching has remained the same. "He goes out there and he competes," Chantres described. That competitive edge and his mental strength is one reason why he received the future closer tag in the first place, but he views it as his greatest strength on the mound regardless of his role.

"I don't have anything on my mind," Castillo said of his approach. "I go to the mound. I go to the field. I go to the two lines, white lines, you know. Nothing on my mind. I only wait for the sign of the catcher. I'm working with him. I look [like] a tiger at the strike zone and I only want to throw strikes. That's my main strength. I'm only waiting for where to place it."

With a mentality like that, it is tempting to place Castillo in the bullpen, but the jury is out on his future.

"Right now, you just can't tell," Chantres said. "It's too early. You never know. Maybe [he] could give you a little more starting-wise."

"I don't know," Pitts said. "I think he's got a good enough breaking ball to be a closer. I haven't seen enough of him to be honest with you. To be a closer, that's a different mentality altogether. You have to go out there a few times and see if you can do it."

According to Castillo, the Yankees have never even mentioned the possibility of closing to him, but if they wanted to move him, the team-oriented Castillo would have no problem with that decision.

When asked if Castillo had any personal goals for this season, he responded, "No, no, no. Only I want to help my team. I don't worry about my statistics. When I go up to the mound, I'm doing my work. My work is to help my team."

"I don't care [about my role]. In the bullpen. In the starting pitching [rotation]. If the Yankees want me, I do this. For me, I like to be [a] starting pitcher. But if the Yankees say, ‘You go to the bullpen to close the game,' I say, ‘Okay.'"

With a consistent work ethic, though, that's an order the Yankees may never give.

"He goes out there every five days [and] works his butt off every day," said Chantres. "He does his arm exercises everyday. He's going to be a good pitcher, but it all depends on him. [. . .] [He has] to master mechanics-wise. [. . .] Castillo's a little younger. So he needs to be here. He needs a full-season under his belt."

If Castillo puts the same effort into the rest of his game that he has shown by improving his slider, there will be no reason for him to ever call the bullpen home. And the Yankees would certainly not be disappointed if their ‘future closer' developed into a ‘future ace.'

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