HOUSTON — The Orioles’ experiment to convert Miguel Castro to a starting pitcher has been put on hold, and if the first four games of the season are any indication, the hard-throwing right-hander’s greatest value for now could be in the same middle-inning role in which he thrived last season.
The club still believes the 23-year-old’s future could very well be in the starting rotation, but as the Orioles went into Tuesday night’s game in Houston coming off three consecutive starts of five innings or fewer, Castro again has the makings of a multi-inning savior in the middle of games.
In Monday night’s 6-1 loss to the Astros at Minute Maid Park, Castro allowed one run in two relief innings succeeding starter Chris Tillman, who lasted just one batter into the fifth inning. But Castro’s stuff was electric, as he mixed a late-breaking power sinker that averaged 96 mph and nearly hit 99 with a complementary slider and changeup.
“I see it as a great opportunity to go out there, compete and help my team win,” Castro said through interpreter Ramón Alarcón. “That’s the way I see it. … Right now, I’m just concentrating on coming out of the bullpen and giving my best effort to my team so we can win.”
For an Orioles bullpen that already has had to account for more than its share of innings — 13 in the past three games entering Tuesday — Castro was last year’s workhorse and could be the same this year.
Manager Buck Showalter was tempted to pitch Castro for a third inning but didn’t want to be without him for the next two days, a sign the Orioles will lean on Castro again this season. Last year, no major league reliever threw more innings in the second half than Castro’s 50 innings after the All-Star break.
Showalter said that with closer Zach Britton likely out until June recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, the Orioles need Castro’s power arm in the bullpen, and he even opened the door for Castro to get late-inning opportunities that will typically go to Brad Brach, Darren O’Day or Mychal Givens.
“There’s such a need to bring what he brings,” Showalter said. “The difference with him is that he can feel when Brad or Darren or Mychal or somebody needs something late in the game, I feel confident with him there, too. I think he’s capable of doing all three and could evolve into who knows what.
“I wouldn’t preclude anything, a lot of it because you see him against the left-handed hitters [with] the changeup. That’s something he’s worked really hard on.”
Castro has yet to be in the Orioles organization for a full year — the team acquired him April 7 last season in a trade with the Colorado Rockies for a player to be named that ended up being minor league pitcher Jon Keller. After starting in the Blue Jays system, he was fast-tracked to become Toronto’s closer at the age of 20. But he struggled, eventually prompting a trade to the Rockies, with whom he never found his footing.
“Let’s face it, Miguel is basically a college senior age-wise,” Showalter said. “He’s happy to be here. I think most importantly, Miguel doesn’t want to go back. You see him out here early doing things. This is a driven young man. He’s a sharp kid. A lot of people because of the language barrier don’t [notice]. He’s a watcher; he’s a listener. I think he has a bright future, but he doesn’t want to go back to what happened In Toronto or Colorado. He’s been on both sides of this. He’s going to do everything possible to stay here regardless of the role, but you could make a case for him fitting into three or four roles that you look for in pitchers, including starting.”
When the Orioles began stretching Castro out at the beginning of spring training with the goal of making him a starter, it was before the team retooled its rotation with the signings of right-hander Andrew Cashner, Chris Tillman and Alex Cobb.
Castro was still in a competition to fill the fifth spot until Cobb was ready for the season, but right-hander Mike Wright Jr. emerged from that battle. Castro, whose spring training was slowed by patellar tendinitis in both knees and a sore back, didn’t pitch more than 3 2/3 innings in four Grapefruit League outings. He allowed four runs in two of those outings, but ended his spring with three scoreless innings in the final game in Florida.
Castro said preparing to be a starter this spring helped his all-around game.
“I think it did,” Castro said. “Definitely as a starter, you have to work really well on all of your pitches. Right now, they’re coming out the way I want them to come out, so hopefully I am able to do that throughout the whole season.”
That showed Monday, when he induced seven swings and misses in his 34-pitch outing — four from his sinker, two from his slider and one from his changeup. The Astros put just four balls in play against Castro, who struck out three batters, allowed two hits and walked one.
In back-to-back strikeouts of Derek Fisher and George Springer on eight total pitches, he recorded six swings and misses, including four on the sinker.
“I feel very confident in all my pitches and thankful that I have eight defenders behind me who can make a play,” Castro said. “So I’m very confident in all my pitches and trusting everything I’ve got. … I feel very happy being here. Since day one, I felt welcomed by all of the guys, like Manny [Machado] and Adam Jones. That gives me a lot of confidence. I’m really happy to be here. I’m thankful for the opportunity, and hopefully I can help this team win.”
Regardless, if the Orioles starters continue to fail to go deep into games, it would set the team up for a long season, especially since Castro is one of the only optionable bullpen arms. The other two optionable relievers — Givens and Richard Bleier — aren’t likely to go anywhere. The Orioles are carrying two Rule 5 draft picks — Pedro Araujo and Nestor Cortes Jr. — who will be groomed steadily for more pressure situations. And when Cobb is ready, which could be as soon as Monday night, Wright would likely have to return to the bullpen because he’s out of minor league options.
“To me, the most important thing is managing [blowout] games and not the 2-1, 3-2 games,” Showalter said. “It’s managing the 7-0 game so you’re on your feet and have a chance to win the next game.”
Castro has aspirations of starting but understands his bullpen role is an important one.
“Honestly, I just try to go out there and compete, be aggressive with my pitches regardless of what happens,” he said. “Those are things that I really cannot control. I can concentrate on working on my pitches, competing out there and being aggressive overall.”