After reviving his career this season in the Orioles bullpen, right-hander Miguel Castro will receive his first start with the club in Saturday’s penultimate game of the season against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.
Castro, a diamond-in-the-rough find in April by executive vice president Dan Duquette, emerged as a valuable multiple-inning reliever at midseason. There’s no secret that the Orioles are likely to experiment with Castro as a starter come spring training, but it was unclear whether the 22-year-old would receive a start before the end of the season.
With nothing to play for other than a middling division finish in the American League East, the Orioles will get a glimpse of Castro’s starting potential Saturday against the Rays.
Castro has a 3.29 ERA over 63 innings, and his 46 2/3 innings are the most by any reliever in the second half of the season. Castro had a 2.38 ERA over his first 32 appearances spanning 53 innings, but has allowed runs in each of his past six appearances, posting an 8.10 ERA with 11 walks over 10 innings, although opponents hit just .250 off him in that span.
Castro will be making his first major league start and his first since May 29, 2015 for the Toronto Blue Jays’ Triple-A team in Buffalo.
“It’s been a while since I’ve started, but definitely I still have the same mindset, trying to go out there, do my job, help my team,” Castro said through interpreter Ramón Alarcón. “I’m looking forward to it. I’ve had a lot of experience in the minors as a starter, so I’m looking forward to it.”
Castro’s ability to mix a mid-90s fastball, mid-80s slider and mid-80s changeup with effectiveness, as well as the Orioles’ dire need for starting pitching next year — right-handers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are the only two starting pitchers certain to return in 2017 — make him a possible fit for a rotation spot next season.
The development of Castro’s changeup will continue to be critical to his potential success as a starter. He’s held opponents to a .232 average on his fastball and hitters are hitting just .143 off his slider. His changeup, a pitch he’s used just 10.2 percent of the time this season, hasn’t been as effective, especially recently. Opponents are hitting .333 off the pitch.
“Rattle me off five really quality two-pitch starters,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “They don’t exist. I think that’s it. I think it’s an arm that hasn’t had a lot of innings on it, too. This guy hasn’t pitched 100 innings in a year. That’s good and bad? So there’s a lot of things. If you really pin him down, which I did, on what he’d rather do in a perfect world — he knows the right things [to say]. He’s a smart guy. He’s sharp and he’s going to do everything possible. … This is something he really wants and when it’s kind of given to you and then it’s taken away, I really think he wants to do whatever’s possible to get him back there.”
Castro certainly will be limited Saturday. He’s already thrown more innings this season than he has in any of his previous five professional seasons. Combining his time at Double-A Bowie with his major league work, he’s thrown 87 1/3 innings this season, which is more than the 80 1/3 innings he pitched at three different Single-A levels in 2014 while he was almost exclusively a starter.
“He was going to get the same amount of innings,” Showalter said. “So we’re obviously not going to pitch him seven innings, but it’s just an opportunity to look at him. It doesn’t mean that if he’s great he’s going to be a starter, or if he’s poor he’s not going to be. It’s just a look. And he’s going to pitch the same amount of innings whether he started or not.
“It’s not something we thought a lot about when we were in [the race], or tried not to. But at the end of each day, we stop and take a step back and [ask] what makes the Orioles better as we go into the offseason. What’s something we want to accomplish here in the last week or what have you? That one we thought was pretty important.”
Castro has just one major league outing this season more than 3 2/3 innings — he allowed one hit in six innings of scoreless relief on Aug. 3 against the Detroit Tigers. He made four appearances of at least four innings at Bowie, all in relief.
Castro was initially groomed as a starter in the Blue Jays system, but Toronto fast-tracked him to be a late-inning reliever after the 2014 season. At age 20, he was a candidate for the closer role during spring training in 2015 having not pitched above High-A.
“What I remember is that when they asked me to move, is that the starting rotation was already set for them,” Castro said. “They already knew who the five starters were going to be. So it ended up me moving to the bullpen.”
He made the major league club that spring, and received closing opportunities, but was sent to Triple-A in May. He mostly pitched out of the bullpen from then on, including in the Colorado Rockies system after he was part of the blockbuster trade that sent shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto in 2015.
“The beginning was a little bit difficult because I had a starting mindset,” he said. “The way you warm up in the bullpen is very different when you’re starting a game. So at the beginning, I was just getting into that period and rhythm — how do I prepare, how can I warm up?”
After acquiring Castro in an April trade with the Rockies — the Orioles sent minor league pitcher Jon Keller to Colorado this month to complete the trade — he initially worked out at the team’s spring complex in Sarasota, Fla., as the Orioles were determined to help him find his comfort zone at his own pace.
Once he joined the Orioles bullpen for good in late June, he provided the team with a capable multi-inning bridge, a role the club desperately needed filled to combat the rotation’s struggles and short starts.
“It’s definitely been an experience, one I can learn from,” Castro said. “I started with a new team here with the Orioles, got assigned to Sarasota, trained there, showed what I could do, was assigned to Double-A and then made my big league opportunity with the team. It’s definitely been a learning experience and I’m just trying to soak everything in.”