Reds pitcher Luis Castillo gets last laugh after brilliant start to season
OAKLAND — Cincinnati Reds ace Luis Castillo doesn’t hold a grudge, and insists he isn’t angry at anyone, but, oh, does he remember.
Here he is, one of the finest young starting pitchers in the National League with an uncanny 1.62 ERA since last September, but inexplicably has been traded four times in his career.
There won’t be a fifth.
The blunders have allowed Castillo to fall right into the Reds’ lap, and they aren’t about to let him go.
“He’s the kind of pitcher,’’ Reds vice president Dick Williams says, “that you build your team around.’’
And the kind of pitcher that has made three franchises cringe with their decisions to ever let him go.
Luis Castillo is 3-1 with a 1.97 ERA this season with the Reds. (Photo: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY Sports)
Castillo, who’s from Bani, Dominican Republic, was originally signed by the San Francisco Giants in 2011. Nearly three years to the day, they made the monumental blunder of sending him to the Miami Marlins for 32-year-old third baseman Casey McGehee.
The Marlins watched him develop into one of their top prospects, only to absurdly trade him not only once, but twice in five months.
The San Diego Padres shrewdly made the move to acquire him from the Marlins in 2016, a month after stealing rookie sensation Chris Paddack for 39-year-old reliever Fernando Rodney. Only to make the foolish blunder of sending him back.
And now, two years after the Reds acquired him from the Marlins for veteran starter Dan Straily, Castillo is the envy of every team in baseball.
He is 26 years old, barely making the minimum salary at $590,000, and pitching like a guy who could wind up as the National League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.
Guess who’s getting the last laugh now?
“When I pitch against those teams now,’’ Castillo says through interpreter Julio Morillo, “I want to pitch so well against them. You feel that inside when I face them. I want to be perfect.’’
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Look at his vengeance tour. He’s 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA, yielding a 0.95 batting average, against the Marlins this season. He’s 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA, and a .182 batting average against the Padres. And he had a no-hit bid in his last start against the Giants, before leaving with a no-decision. He faces them again Friday in San Francisco.
Castillo, who in April became the first Reds’ pitcher since Denny Neagle in 1999 to win the Pitcher of the Month, is a subtle reminder how clubs can look like fools trading away the wrong prospects, with the Reds winning the prize.
This is a guy who’s 6-2 with a 1.62 ERA in his last 13 starts since Sept. 1, 2018. He’s 4-2 with a 1.97 ERA this season, third-lowest in the league. He has given up just 30 hits in 50 1/3 innings, striking out 59, with a .176 opponent’s batting average.
He became only the third pitcher in major-league history this season — joining Hall of Famers Rube Marquard in 1911 and Randy Johnson in 1997 — to make three consecutive starts yielding two or fewer hits and striking out at least eight batters.
“I absolutely love what this kid is doing right now,’’ Washington Nationals special assistant Dan Jennings told USA TODAY Sports. “His stuff is something special. He has always had a great arm, and now he’s figuring out his secondary stuff.
“It will go down as one of my greatest trades, for sure.
“I wasn’t around for what happened next.’’
Jennings, the Marlins’ general manager at the time who was later fired, was the one who made the first trade for Castillo, trading McGehee. Castillo wasn’t even on the Marlins’ radar in the trade talks, but when Jennings called on scout Mike Goff for possible names, he brought up Castillo.
“Mike had Castillo when he managed in (Class A) Augusta,’’ Jennings said, “and he told me, 'grab Castillo.' I love the kid.
“Well, I called (former Giants GM) Bobby Evans and he had already agreed to give us (pitcher) Kendry Flores. I told Bobby, 'I’ve got to have another prospect.’ So I told him I’d like to have this kid named Castillo.’
“Bobby called me back a few minutes later and we had a deal.’’
Two years later, despite being the Florida State League’s pitcher of the year, and the Marlins’ minor-league pitcher of the year, they dealt him on July 29, 2016, to the Padres in a package with pitchers Jarred Cosart, Carter Capps and first baseman Josh Naylor for pitchers Andrew Cashner, Colin Rea and Tayron Guerrero.
“I was in San Diego for three days, and was asleep,’’ Castillo said, “when they told me I was traded again. Back to Miami.
“I couldn’t understand what happened. It was crazy.’’
It turns out that Rea blew out his elbow in his first appearances with the Marlins. The Marlins believe they bought damaged goods. They angrily sent Rea back to the Padres for Castillo, while the rest of the trade stood.
“I don’t think they [the Marlins] realized how lucky,’’ Jennings said, “they were to get him back.
Three months later, Reds vice president Dick Williams was at the general manager meetings when Marlins president Mike Hill informed him that he was looking for a veteran starter.
The Reds had who the Marlins wanted in Straily.
The Marlins had who the Reds wanted in Castillo.
“We had a lot of guys get looks at him,’’ Williams said, “because we had had some good players in the Florida State League, and were there a lot. I remember our guys being particularly high on him.
“He was being used as a reliever, but our guys were convinced there was a lot of upside getting him, and developing him as a starter.’’
There was heavy internal debate, Williams said, considering Straily was their best pitcher in 2016, going 14-8 with a 3.76 ERA in 191 1/3 innings.
“It was hard for us to give him up,’’ Williams said. “I credit my guys for pushing me to say there’s so much upside in this Castillo kid.’’
The Reds wound up getting a 3-for-1 deal, also receiving pitcher Austin Brice and minor-league outfielder Isaiah White on Jan. 19, 2017. Brice appeared in 55 games for the Reds, and now is back with the Marlins. White hasn’t gotten out of Class A.
“Castillo was clearly the target,’’ Williams said.’’
Castillo has become a genuine star before their eyes, and has terrorized the National League.
“The changeup has become my really effective pitch,’’ Castillo says. “I’ve been able to use it at any time. I threw it a quite bit last year, too, but I trust that pitch so much more that I’m able to throw it now in any count in any situation.’’
He also has a vaunted new pitching coach in Derek Johnson, who has become one of the best free-agent signings of the winter, leading the Reds’ pitching staff to the league’s lowest ERA despite playing their home games in a bandbox.
“He’s done a really good job with me,’’ Castillo says. “He’s helped me a lot with my command, the location of my pitches, and has given me so much confidence.’’
The difference now is that Castillo throws his changeup more frequently, and effectively, while throwing his fastball up in the strikezone. Hitters no longer are able to focus on one side of the plate. He also has closed his front shoulder, raised his leg kick, with hitters having much less time to see the ball.
He has been much more effective against lefties, who batted .289 with a .881 OPS off him last season, hitting 18 homers with 22 doubles in 351 plate appearances. This year, lefties are hitting just .205 with a .566 OPS, striking out 31 times in 83 at-bats.
“He’s made some nice adjustments,’’ Johnson said, “and he’s just going to get better. His command can get better, his slider can get better, and he has a lot of weapons that he can throw.
“He’s pretty special.’’
Maybe, just special enough to seize the attention of a certain Hall of Fame pitcher:
Pedro Martinez, his childhood idol.
“I hope to God one day that he gives me the opportunity to sit down with him,’’ Castillo says, “and have a really good conversation.’’
That time could come on July 9 in Cleveland at the All-Star Game.
Martinez, who’s an MLB-TV analyst, plans to be there. Castillo may be joining him, becoming the first Reds’ starter to make the All-Star team since Johnny Cueto in 2014.
“That’s my goal,’’ Castillo said, “really, my dream.’’
And a nightmare for a certain trio of teams who actually traded him away.
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