When the Orioles signed catcher Welington Castillo this past offseason, it was for him to serve as a stopgap until top prospect Chance Sisco was ready to assume the starting catcher role.
But the one-year, $6 million contract Castillo signed in December included a $7 million player option for next season, giving the 30-year-old the right to decide whether he returns to the Orioles in 2018.
Castillo has enjoyed his best season offensively this year — his .284 batting average, 20 homers and .815 OPS entering Saturday all were all career highs — and he reached those numbers despite playing in just 93 games. His stock has definitely increased since a year ago.
In the first half of the season, Castillo missed time with two stints on the disabled list — he missed 22 games with shoulder tendinitis and a testicular injury — but after the All-Star break, he began sharing starts with catcher Caleb Joseph evenly, though over the past month, Castillo has started more regularly.
Castillo could decide to decline his player option and retest the free-agent market. His 2.5 WAR (wins above replacement), according to FanGraphs, is higher than any other pending free-agent catcher, though the Chicago Cubs' Alex Avila (2.4) and Atlanta Braves' Tyler Flowers (2.3), who has a club option for 2018, are both close.
Offensively, Castillo would be the best option available on the market, if he chooses to test it. He's one of just four catchers to go into Saturday with 20 homers and an .800 OPS this season — the New York Yankees' Gary Sánchez, Seattle Mariners' Mike Zunino and Cubs' Willson Contreras are the others. And Castillo showed remarkable strides throwing out base runners this season, with his caught-stealing percentage (47.9) leading the majors.
That would seem to make Castillo destined to test the market again. But asked Thursday about his upcoming decision whether to exercise his player option, Castillo said while he hasn't thought of the offseason quandaries much, he'd like to remain in Baltimore.
"Right now, I'm not thinking about that honestly," Castillo said. "I just want to finish the season strong and win the most games that we can. I think the time's going to come by itself on when I have to think about it, but honestly I want to stay here. I want to win here because I know what kind of players [we have] and what kind of team this is.
"I want to be a part of this team when they win and I like it here. I like my teammates. I like my coaches. I like the travel, I like the division a lot. I like the competition. This division is one of the best. So I want to stay here."
Castillo, who became a free agent this past offseason when he was nontendered by the Arizona Diamondbacks, came to the Orioles with a desire to improve defensively, realizing that affected his free-agent value. He worked with former major league catcher José Molina in the offseason, and has credited Orioles bench coach John Russell for helping him to become a better receiver and thrower.
During his offseason in the Dominican Republic, Castillo worked out with All-Stars Robinson Canó and Edwin Encarnación, picking their brains on the mental aspect of hitting. He said he still texts Canó every day.
"I did a really good job in the offseason to get prepared for this year and I know you hear stuff that's said, that hard work pays off," Castillo said. "And I think this is the hard work paying off. … I always believed that I could hit a little bit and that I can play defense a little bit, but I always think that I can get better defensively. Hitting for me, I care, but it's not my No. 1 job. I care more about my defense and my framing. I keep getting better in my throwing and my blocking, my game-calling, everything, and I think I need to keep getting better at all that stuff."
The Orioles know Castillo can hit. He's shown strides defensively. His defensive runs above average of 10.3 heading into Saturday, according to FanGraphs, ranked second in the American League behind only the Los Angeles Angels' Martín Maldonado, though that number gives great stock to throwing numbers. Castillo's minus-6 defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs, is third worst among major league catchers with at least 700 innings behind the plate this season. Also, his 5.56 catcher's ERA ranked 28th in the majors. By comparison, Joseph's is 4.19 – though catcher's ERA can be skewed by the pitching staff's ability to execute pitches.
The Orioles appear much more comfortable with their catching depth's major league readiness now than they were at the beginning of the season. Sisco, 22, had his contract selected this month when rosters expanded and though he's played little, his time is coming quickly.
"Welington has had a good year," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "He's done a good job defensively, notably throwing out runners, and he's a potent offensive performer. He's had a good year. We do have some catching depth in the organization. We're encouraged with how Sisco developed. Caleb Joseph came back and had a good year. The catcher in Double-A, Austin Wynns, had a solid year. We have pretty good depth at the position."
Castillo has been a key part of the Orioles offense. In his first 43 games of the second half, he hit 12 homers in just 152 plate appearances and posted a .958 OPS. And while the second-half split in playing time coincided with Joseph having a strong first half at the plate, Castillo took it in stride. But looking to the future, he said he'd like to be in a position where he can play regularly.
"I can't see in my mind that I'm not going to be an everyday guy," Castillo said. "But at the same time, this game is about ups and downs and you can have bad moments during the year where I think the manager makes the decision to just give me a platoon, maybe a little bit more rest. I don't know. That was his decision. I respect [Buck Showalter] because he has an idea why he's doing it.
"But you as a player, you want to be there every day. You are a competitor. I like to compete. I like to help my team. It's not like the other guys aren't going to help. But that's not my mentality. I want to be there because I want to help, especially when stuff's not going good. That's when you show people that you are there 100 percent."
If Castillo does return, it could clog Sisco's path to the majors. But Duquette said he's content with whatever decision Castillo makes on his player option. He realizes that having Castillo's offensive production would be a value for $7 million, but also realizes the team can easily look to the future if Castillo decides to test free agency.
"Either way is helpful to the club," Duquette said. "He's what, 30 years old? It'd be the second year of a two-year deal and he'd have the incentive to have a good year. He's got plenty of incentive to have a good year. The thing about catchers, you get a couple of foul tips and you need to have depth at that position."