SARASOTA, FLA. — Much has been made about Welington Castillo's crash course learning the Orioles pitching staff before he leaves the team to play in the World Baseball Classic. And the new Orioles catcher realizes becoming comfortable behind the plate is a meticulous process that will continue well into the regular season.
But that won't deter Castillo from getting as many looks at his pitchers as he can. On Friday, Castillo walked into manager Buck Showalter's office asking to play a big part in the team's intersquad games Tuesday and Wednesday in advance of the Orioles' Grapefruit League opener Friday against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla.
"He said, 'You know, I want to catch every guy I can catch,'" Showalter said. "… He was talking, the hitting part of it, it's not like he doesn't have to worry about it, but he knows the whole focus here is about the catching part and getting to know the pitchers. You can tell he's really seeking them out and I know they've been really impressed with him."
Castillo, the 29-year-old backstop the Orioles signed to be the successor to longtime catcher Matt Wieters, will be with the club for two weeks before he joins the Dominican Republic WBC team. Castillo concedes he's a little uneasy leaving the Orioles, but the situation isn't as simple as it might seem.
Castillo gave his word to Dominican Republic general manager Moises Alou that he would play in the WBC back in November, not thinking he'd become a free agent a few weeks later when the Arizona Diamondbacks didn't tender him a contract. He signed with the Orioles on Dec. 16, knowing his primary goal this spring would be to get adjusted to a new team and staff. He considered pulling out, but ultimately he wanted to keep his word to play.
"I would like to stay here the whole spring training, because I know it's better for me and better for them, but I was giving my word to [the Dominican team], to Moises, the GM," Castillo said Friday "… Before I signed here, I said I was going to play. And I'm the kind of guy who when I say something, I like to prove it. So honestly, I'm a little bit in between. This is my job. I have a job to do here, too. I'm going put my emphasis on anything and everything I do here with the pitching staff when I'm here with my teammates."
Filling the shoes of Wieters — a four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner who still remains a free agent — isn't an easy task. Even though Wieters' defensive tools seemed to regress, Orioles pitchers were comfortable throwing to him and they rarely shook him off. That rapport is something they will have to develop over time with Castillo. There are so many parts to catching and many are difficult to quantify statistically — calling games, controlling the running game and keeping a pitcher in the right frame of mind, and a major part of that is having the faith of your pitchers.
"He gives you a nice confident impression when you look down there," Orioles closer Zach Britton said. "That's nice to see. … He looks good with the set-up and the presentation of his glove, and stuff like that. It's comfortable to throw to. It might sound like a weird thing, but that's one thing we were all talking about after that first day.
"Wiety was so big [as a target], but [Castillo's] a lot like [backup] Caleb [Joseph], and guys like throwing to Caleb. I think for him, he's just got to get more comfortable with guys' movement, what they like to do. That's the biggest challenge for a catcher, realizing what the pitch is doing, and it could take a while. He's just got to get back there and catch it. Caleb's caught me since I was in High-A, so it's hard to compare him with anybody with me because he'd been with me for so long. There's a comfort factor there because he's known me so long, but we can build that with Castillo."
After Friday's workout, Castillo had caught four days of bullpen sessions, getting his first looks at high-movement pitchers like Britton, Darren O'Day, Mychal Givens and Mike Wright. The bullpen sessions not only allowed Castillo to see his staff's repertoire and pitch movement, but gave him the chance to talk with his pitchers about how they like to pitch.
"We had a good conversation after my 'pen," Wright said after his session. "We talked about my stuff. It was just one bullpen, but I feel like he'd already, telling me I'm this type of pitcher and he was spot on. It felt pretty good to throw to him."
Said O'Day, "He was awesome. He seems positive, upbeat, which is good out of a catcher. You want a guy who's easy to talk to. Just throwing to him, I can tell he's going to steal from strikes for us. He's got a lot to learn, so he's going to have to catch a lot of different guys. But [it's] encouraging definitely to throw to him."
But bullpen sessions only go so far, so Castillo said he will try to get as many exhibition innings behind the plate as he can before he leaves. He knows that truly learning his pitchers will continue into the season when games matter.
"I put it like this: You're never going to stop learning. That's what I think," Castillo said. "You're never going to stop learning about a guy. … Bullpens are fine, but it's not like game time. It's not the same adrenaline out there. I think the more that we spend time together and we get to know each other, the better it's going to be. So I'll have to have an idea, who are the guys I have to wake up on the mound, who are the guys I've got to calm down in certain spots.
"The bullpen gives you an idea of the pitch and the movement of the pitch, but I think when the game time comes, that's when they're going to come out. The adrenaline is there. The hitters are there. It's game time. I think they're going to be different."
Castillo would like to catch five innings in Tuesday's first intrasquad game, which will be the first time he gets to see pitchers in a game-simulated atmosphere. Showalter said he will get his time in that game, with a special priority on him seeing relievers.
"[Pitching coach] Roger [McDowell] and I were talking about lining up the guys that I really want him to catch," Showalter said. "I'm not so worried about the starters than I am about the relievers, because the starters, he's going to catch them four, five, six innings down here hopefully. But I'm more concerned about him seeing Britton and [Brad] Brach and Givens and O'Day and those guys. It's a one-inning thing and if you miss it, it might he three or four days until you get another shot."
After that, Castillo will have just 11 more opportunities -- one more intrasquad game and 10 days of Grapefruit League games -- to catch Orioles pitchers before leaving for the WBC.
Showalter is willing to play Castillo often, and also realizes Castillo's education will take time, but is confident he can fill Wieters' shoes aptly.
"It's a process, but there are a lot of teams going through this," Showalter said. "We're not the only ones. We were very fortunate to have had Matt for a very long time. It's not like all of sudden you reach 'X' day in spring training and he's got it. There's catching the bullpens, there's relationships, there's intrasquad games, there's exhibition games and there are some things that are only going to happen during the season. There's another level there, but I'm confident he can handle it."