SARASOTA, FLA. — Orioles right-hander Miguel Castro filled an important role last season as a middle-inning bridge, a position made more critical by the troubling number of short starts the team had. But in choosing Castro’s role for this season, Orioles manager Buck Showalter would much rather use him to help fix the club’s starting pitching problems.
The Orioles rotation pitched the fewest innings in the American League in 2017, and no major league reliever pitched more innings in the second half of the season than Castro. With that being the case, Showalter said he believes Castro will best be utilized as a starter this season as the 23-year-old made his delayed spring debut Friday morning.
“My biggest concern now is figure out a way that we don’t have as big of a need for the long reliever,” Showalter said. “But you do. I don’t care, every club does. But we had more need last year than probably anybody in our league.”
Assembling all the puzzle pieces of an Opening Day 25-man roster is difficult, especially fitting a young, talented arm like Castro’s in the correct spot. Early-March projections don’t always pan out. The Orioles believe they have better candidates for long relief than this time last year.
Castro will have some competition for the final rotation spot. He’s considered the front runner, but Rule 5 draft pick Nestor Cortes Jr. and Mike Wright Jr. will both offer competition. Castro will definitely have to earn a rotation spot. Showalter said if he does, it will be because Castro showed this spring that he’s one of the best five options.
“It depends on how it shakes out,” Showalter said. “We’ve got a lot of people we think that might be able to [pitch in middle relief], too. We’re gonna take our best five starters and go from there. If we think he’s one of them, that’s what he’ll do. So, I’d like to decrease the need for his [old] role.”
In 2017, the Orioles’ 5.70 starters’ ERA was the worst in the majors. When spring training began — with right-handers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman as the team’s only two arms slotted into the rotation — transitioning Castro into a starting role seemed to be a necessity. With the addition of veteran righty Andrew Cashner and the re-signing of right-hander Chris Tillman, he’s now the leading contender for the final rotation spot instead of the third or fourth.
Castro, however, hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2014 in Low-A ball in the Toronto Blue Jays system. After pitching 46 2/3 innings in the second half of this past season – the next-closest reliever tossed seven fewer innings – the Orioles gave Castro one start in late September when they were out of the race. He allowed three runs over 3 1/3 innings on Sept. 30 in a loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Success as a long reliever — Castro had a 3.29 ERA out of the bull pen last season — and becoming a dependable starting pitcher that can go deep in games are two different things.
“For me, it’s [important] to get my mind ready for more innings, throwing five, six or seven innings per start,” Castro said earlier this spring through translator Ramón Alarcón. “But the main thing is competing. Go out there and compete, and try to do the best job possible.”
Castro officially started that progression in his first spring game action Friday morning on a back field of the Ed Smith Stadium complex. Soreness in his knees and back delayed his spring debut by five days, but on Friday, he pitched two innings in a “B” game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Castro allowed one run — on Austin Meadows’ solo homer two batters into the game — but allowed just two hits while striking out three and walking none.
“I felt really good,” Castro said through Alarcón after his outing. “I was not expecting how good I felt today. Everything [in] that regard was really good. I was able to make my pitches low and inside, which was really good as well.”
Against a lineup of Pirates prospects and minor leaguers, Castro threw first-pitch strikes to eight of nine batters and used all three of his pitches — fastball, slider and changeup. But he did struggle putting away hitters who were willing to work a count. Castro threw 37 pitches, 25 of them strikes.
“First time out. Healthy,” Showalter said. “Was good to see him out there, though. I think he threw around, close to 40. So that’s good to get that under his belt. He can get back in the mix now. It’s a good step for him.”
Castro said he felt “100 percent healthy” after being scratched from Sunday’s first scheduled Grapefruit League start.
“No pains whatsoever, thanks to God,” Castro said. “I just want to continue to go out there and keep working hard.”
Both Cortes and Wright must remain on the roster or the team will likely lose them, so if they pitch well, the team will try to keep them — if not as starters, as relievers. Castro still has a minor league option, so he could return to the minors and start every five days. But right now, he seems like too valuable a piece to be pitching at Triple-A.
“Right now, I’m preparing myself for the opportunity as a starter,” Castro said “But if there’s a change whatsoever, I’m willing to adjust to that as well. I just want to go out there and help the team.”