If you’ve been following the Phillies big league club this season, you’ve heard Fabio Castro’s name mentioned quite a bit, and you’ve probably heard various stories about his role in 2007. I don’t think anyone really knows at this point where he’s going, with some reports saying the starting rotation at AA or AAA, and some saying he’s going to end up in the Phillies bullpen. For those who didn’t know, Castro was acquired by the Phillies last season for Dan Haigwood, who was part of the Jim Thome deal. But because Castro was acquired in the Rule 5 draft from Chicago (by Kansas City, then traded to Texas), he had to remain on the Phillies 25 man roster all season. At times, we debated putting Fabio’s picture on a milk carton last season, because he pitched very infrequently, mainly because the Phillies felt he wasn’t ready to pitch in the big leagues with any kind of consistency.
Castro was originally signed by the Chicago White Sox out of the Dominican Republic as a free agent in 2001, at the tender age of 16. He didn’t make his US debut until 2003 in the Appalachian League. In 123 minor league games, over the span of 213 innings, Castro put up a quality 2.41 ERA, allowing only 160 hits, with 95 walks and 218 K’s, and allowed only 11 home runs. He obviously has the talent, but because he was so young and raw, he didn’t move quickly through the minors, and Chicago just ran out of space in their system. The Royals took him and then immediately traded him to Texas for Esteban German. He was traded to the Phillies on June 29th, and from there, began his participation in the baseball version of the Witness Protection Program. Castro pitched very infrequently, mainly in blowout games, and normally only 1 inning at a time. He ended up logging 23 innings for the Phillies, posting a 1.54 ERA, allowing 12 hits, 6 walks, 1 HR and striking out 13. The Phillies successfully kept him on the 25 man roster all season, and he is now Phillies property, on their 40 man roster.
But, even though we know all of that, we still don’t know where he’s going in 2007. While he showed he can pitch at the big league level, he was kept out of most high leverage situations, and the one memory Phillies fans probably have of him is the grand slam he allowed late in the season. The early talk involved putting him the starting rotation at either Reading or Scranton. This idea has merit, because Castro’s stuff, while good, could use improvement, especially his slider, which is an average at best pitch. Developing his slider pitching every few days for an inning might be tough, and the Phillies think he has a good enough arm to be a starter at some point. Since starters have more value than relievers, if he has the capability, it might not be a bad avenue to explore. With the Phillies having six starters now, and three other guys with more seasoning (Happ, Segovia and Germano) lined up to fill in, Fabio could stay in the minors this season and get 150 or 160 innings in as a starter to really fine tune his stuff.
On the other hand, if he experiences similar success in 2007 as he did in 2006, he could provide a solid arm in the Phillies pen. With teams eager to shell out 4 million, sometimes more, for setup guys, having Castro, who makes the league minimum, could prove to be a very profitable decision, based on production to cost. The danger here, of course is that he will be underused in relief, his pitches will lose their sharpness, and his development as a pitcher will be stunted. It’s not an easy decision, and it’s one that will probably be made in Spring Training. As of now, Castro would be competing with the likes of Bisenius, Warden, Simon, and others. Warden and Simon are both Rule 5 picks this year, which means they probably have a leg up, since Castro has options left and those guys must be kept on the 25 man roster.
Looking at Fabio’s stuff, it’s clear why Gillick wanted him, and maybe sacrificed the roster spot to keep him. Only 5’8, 160 lbs, Castro still has a big fastball, sitting at 91-92 and hitting 94 on occasion. He located his fastball reasonably well in the games he pitched for the Phillies, but he could probably use a little work on commanding it consistently to different quadrants of the strike zone. His changeup is a beauty, featuring late fade and break, giving him an equalizer against RH batters. His slider, as I mentioned above, is fringy now, showing inconsistent break and tilt, but will come around as he uses it more. In 2006, he dominated left handed batters, holding them to a 0.74/.188/0.74 line, allowing only 2 hits and 4 walks against the 32 batters he faced. He was tough on righties too, holding them to a .202/.297/.304 line, allowing 16 H and 9 BB against the 92 batters he faced.
Gillick, since taking over, hasn’t been afraid to challenge younger players, whether it be with aggressive promotions in the minors or throwing guys like Matt Smith into major league roles. With Castro, he really has a tough decision to make. 2007 will be his age 22 season, so he is still really young, age wise, but has already been in pro ball since 2003, so this will be his fifth professional season. If he can master his breaking ball and turn it into a third average/above average pitch, he could profile as a #4 starter going forward. If he is thrown into the ML bullpen now, he has the potential to be a solid 7th inning reliever. The people who get paid money to make these decisions obviously have a tough one to make.
If the Phillies don’t acquire another reliever, then I think Castro has a good chance to make the bullpen out of ST if he performs well. If they trade Jon Lieber for a reliever, which I still think they will, then Castro will probably start the year in the AA rotation. While this might seem like a “step back” for him, I think this might actually benefit him in the long run, and pay larger dividends to the Phillies in the long run. He’s only 22, he has a great arm, it would be a shame to see him only used in middle relief if he were capable of more. We’ll probably know more in 6 weeks, and we can revisit it then. What we do know is, Fabio has a bright future, regardless of the role he’s playing.