A year ago Saturday, amid a flurry of early-season pitching moves where the Orioles lost Parker Bridwell and shuffled the back end of their roster, executive vice president Dan Duquette acquired right-hander Miguel Castro from the Colorado Rockies.
It was a move that provided one of the few pitching bright spots for the club in 2017, with the 23-year-old flamethrower taking over the team's long-relief role and becoming one of their most valuable pitchers with a 3.53 ERA. That went so well that they tried to make him a starter in spring training, and though both his own performance and other circumstances pushed him back to the bullpen, he's been as useful as ever this year as a reliever — and feels that might be where his future is long term.
"I've been relieving for quite some time — since 2015, more or less," Castro said through team interpreter Ramón Alarcón. "That's been the biggest role for the past few years. So, I've noticed that my body and my arm is accustomed to that, and has responded really well to that. I just want to help my team."
That was the thought after the Toronto Blue Jays rushed Castro, then 20, to the majors from High-A Dunedin in the spring of 2015 to be their closer. He was traded to the Rockies that summer as part of the Troy Tulowitzki trade, and was up and down through both that season and the following one.
His career was facing plenty of questions when the Orioles brought him in.
"Castro had the good size and the youth, and we had seen him in spring training the year before or two years before, when he was with Toronto," Duquette said. “[Scout] Dave Engle liked him, and Pat DiGregory, our pro scouting director, he liked him. He liked the kid's velocity and his projection.
"He really went from A-ball to the big leagues. Then in the trade to Colorado, he went from Colorado to Triple-A. That's tough for a pitcher. He really skipped a key developmental level in Double-A, so we felt if we gave him a little bit more time to develop his skills at the proper level, he could help in the big leagues. He did that last year, and again this year.”
The Orioles built him back up in Sarasota, Fla., for a few weeks last spring under the tutelage of pitching instructors Ramón Martínez and Dave Schmidt, among others, and Castro had three brief stints with Double-A Bowie before permanently gaining a spot in the Orioles bullpen.
"It definitely means a lot, the trust that they've shown in me," Castro said. "I hope I can continue to pay them back with performance, which is what I want and what they want. I'm really thankful for the opportunity and try to take every day as a new opportunity to compete, go out there and help my team."
So far in 2018, despite the disappointment of not making the rotation in spring training, Castro has been as useful as ever. He recorded seven outs on just 26 pitches with two strikeouts Friday, his only blemish a solo home run by shortstop Didi Gregorius that tied the game at 3 in the eighth inning.
But even as he's allowed runs in each of his past three outings and has a 4.26 ERA this season, the stuff around it has been as dominant as ever. His fastball is averaging 97.1 mph this year — up from 95.8 mph last year, according to FanGraphs. He still features a hard slider and a changeup, keeping hitters off balance with each, and has six strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings to go with a 0.95 WHIP.
Castro didn't have nearly the same stuff when he worked this spring as a starter, though he was slowed by soreness in both knees that caused a lower back problem as well. But once he got back to a shorter relief schedule at the end of spring, he was dominant again, and carried that into the regular season.
"I don't think it's because he stopped starting — the only way you can relieve is not to start," manager Buck Showalter said. "But he's been good. Miguel, he really wants it. He's fun to pull for. He's probably out there running the stadium steps right now. I don't think he'll ever put on a lot of weight on that frame — he just won't let himself. I watch him eat like someone who's going to the electric chair.
"He's a good kid. With the background with the Blue Jays, who brought him up quick and the things that went on in Colorado, he's got a good lease and he likes it here and he's not going to lose the opportunity. Plus, he throws 97-98 [mph]. But he learns lessons along the way. He was 98-99, and the pitch he threw to Didi was 94. He tried to sink it. He'll put that in his memory bank and not do it again."
Duquette said there's no clear idea yet of whether Castro could be tried as a starter again going forward.
"We'll see how that plays out," Duquette said. "The consistency of his pitches is improving, and he's got the pitches to get out both lefties and righties — a good competitor, too. Good kid, hard worker. He's got a lot of good qualities. As Yogi Berra would say, his future is in front of him. His pitches are better. He's getting more time on the mound, which is what he needed, really."