Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Second Chances?

This is #2 of 5 Key Mets Players for the 2009 season.
Luis Castillo came to the Mets in what was more or less a no-brainer deadline deal in 2007. Down the stretch, Castillo took over at second base, a position that had been a problem for the Mets to fill most of the year. He played tolerably well, hitting .296 and scoring 37 runs in 50 games with the team, which is about what you'd expect of Luis Castillo. He'd made a name for himself for many years with the Florida Marlins doing just that: Getting on base, getting in the way and being a pain in the ass. Though he didn't possess the speed he once did (62 SB in 2000 was his career high), he was still farily fleet afoot, and with his Free Agency coming up, it seemed more or less a given that the Mets would resign him, probably for a couple of seasons.

We didn't expect an asinine 4-year, $25 million contract that not only tied him up, it made him virtually untradeable.

We also didn't expect Castillo to show up undermotivated and out of shape in 2008, which resulted in a thoroughly embarrassing performance, hitting .245 in 87 games, scoring only 46 runs and managing only 11 extra base hits for the season. Yes, Castillo missed wholesale time during July and August. But when he returned in September, and found himself battling for playing time among the likes of Argenis Reyes, Damion Easley and Ramon Martinez, Castillo responded by going a robust 4-for-36 for the month of September. Booed regularly, Castillo had fallen out of favor rather quickly with the fans, and just as quickly with his manger. By the season's final week, Manuel's plan for Second Base appeared to be "Anybody But Castillo." With Reyes overmatched and Easley hurt, Manuel turned to castoff Ramon Martinez several times during the season's waning moments. In the end, it wasn't enough. Though Martinez contributed far more than expected, a healthy and motivated Castillo might have made the difference.

After the season, I called Castillo a "No Fun Cliff Floyd with no power." I'll stick with that statement until Castillo proves to me different. After an offseason filled with rumors that he would be cut, and attempts to deal him were futily attempted, the Mets decided to suck it up and bring Castillo back. These efforts weren't lost on Castillo himself; he came to camp this season and said he was embarrassed by his performance last year. He virtually begged Minaya for a second chance, and apparently made a concerted effort to show up in good shape and ready to play. Now 17 pounds lighter, and free of pain in his knees, Castillo, if you believe what you've been reading about him, appears ready to erase the memories of 2008.

But is it believeable?

Castillo has a lot to do to convince everyone that what happened in 2008 was an aberration, and not the path his career is heading. He has always been a high OBA, low SLG player, a slap hitter who uses his speed to get things done. He'd hit leadoff for a number of seasons in Florida, before 2003 when, hitting behind Juan Pierre most of the season, the Marlins won the World Series. You would think that, hitting behind Jose Reyes, Castillo would do many of the similar things, such as taking pitches, letting Reyes steal bases, or laying down a bunt, or slapping the ball to the right side and moving Reyes over, or getting some hits of his own and driving Reyes in.

The hot talk, of course, has been Manuel's plot to have Castillo himself hit leadoff, with Reyes moving to the #3 spot in the lineup. It's not the craziest idea in the world, and I'd suspect Manuel will try it more than once, at least during exhibition games. It's my thought that this is more of a motivational tactic that Manuel is using to kick Reyes in the ass a little bit. This move would work, but two things need to happen: 1) Reyes needs to basically become Keith Hernandez as a hitter (IE a #3 hitter needs to level his swing, hit line drives, and produce a high batting average and a lot of RBIs, not HRs and fly balls, something Reyes may not yet be capable of doing on a consistent basis) and 2) Castillo needs to prove that he's for real, and he's back to being the Castillo of old, that is, drawing walks and stealing bases, something he really hasn't done a lot of since 2004 or so.
More than likely, Castillo deserves to begin the season hitting 8th, with Daniel Murphy most likely hitting 2nd. Castillo would really have to prove himself to earn back the #2 spot, but then again, who am I to say? It would be nice to say that Castillo can rebound, hit about .280 with an OBA of .370 or so, and maybe hit more than 7 doubles for the season. It would be nice to think that he'll play 140+ games this season and be a steady figure on the team. It would be nice to see Castillo win back the fans, who will undoubtedly be on him like vultures from the moment he steps out of the Dugout on Opening Day. But he's got a lot to prove. Bill Price of the Daily News has already installed a daily "Castill-O-Meter," tracking his daily Batting Average. Nobody seems to be convinced that he's up to the task.

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