Willi Castro's Father Helped Turn Him Into Minnesota's Do-Everything Player

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Lilliano Castro signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1987, the year the Minnesota Twins won their first World Series. He played shortstop, second, and third, hitting .252/.279/.261 in A-ball and Low-A. Still more than two years younger than his competition, he repeated A-ball in 1988 but injured his arm.

Castro could no longer throw, which meant he couldn’t play. But the Tigers liked him enough to add him to their coaching staff. He coached in Detroit’s system for eight years, then worked for the New York Mets for 15 years after that. Willi Castro was born on April 27, 1997, while Lilliano worked for the Mets. He fell in love with baseball at a young age and remembers those teams well.

“Man, my favorite player coming up was José Reyes,” Castro says fondly. His father was working with the big-league club at the time and would bring Willi to practices starting when he was nine years old. “He was a BP thrower, so he knows José Reyes. He knows Carlos Beltrán. Lucas Duda. Carlos Delgado.”

Willi caught the Mets in a small window of success. In 2006, they won 97 games and lost to the eventual-champion St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS. They won 88 games and 89 in the following seasons, but they didn’t play a playoff series again until their World Series run in 2015. Still, the star players made a lasting impression on him.

The Castros lived in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where the Mets host Spring Training, for three years. Therefore, Willi got to know most of the players when they were coming up. None of them made a bigger impression than Reyes. He was New York’s star shortstop. In 2006, Reyes hit .300/.354/.487 with a league-leading 17 triples and 64 stolen bases, making his first of four All-Teams.

“Reyes was the guy that inspired me to become the player that I am right now,” he said. “Watching him play, the abilities that he has, and the feel, you know?

“And always with a good energy. I learned a lot from him when he used to play there.”

But Castro’s biggest influence was his father. Willi started playing Little League a year after that Mets season. He was 10, much older than many of the other kids. “But I was ready because my dad used to practice with me, throwing some baseballs and all that stuff,” says Castro. “And when I went to play, I was ready. I was hitting everybody and had a really good bat.”

It helped that Willi was getting instruction from a professional coach. Castro says his father was a better defensive player but that he’s a better hitter. Lilliano kept the drills simple. He’d get out the Fungo bat and hit grounders, then toss him batting practice. Most of all, Lilliano instilled a sense of hustle in Willi, something Rocco Baldelli immediately noticed about Castro.

He shows you with his actions what he’s all about. He works incredibly hard every single day. He plays incredibly hard. He’s on his toes and plays all over the field. I knew he had the ability, but he’s shown us even more in his time here than we could have ever expected from him, and it looks like he’s still getting better.

We have a really good multi-positional player here on our hands. He does a lot of things that you’re looking for in today’s game, and he does a lot of things well. And his attitude is better than any of it. He’s a tremendous character to have in the clubhouse.

Castro arrived in Minnesota’s clubhouse seemingly out of nowhere. He signed with the Cleveland Guardians as an international free agent in 2013. Five years later, they traded him to Detroit. In 2019, he debuted with the Tigers at a game in Minnesota, fulfilling his promise to his father. However, Detroit non-tendered him in November 2022, and he became a free agent.

In December, Baldelli got a call from Jeremy Zoll, Minnesota’s director of minor league operations, when he was in the middle of an hour-and-a-half drive to meet some friends in Charlton, Mass., outside of Worchester. He picked up, and Zoll asked if Baldelli could call Castro. Baldelli asked for some background on Castro and said he’d give him a call when he was driving home.

“I was on the phone with him for about 45 seconds,” says Baldelli. “It was very brief. He sounded excited about the opportunity that I laid out for him and some of my thoughts about him and the way he plays the game. Truthfully, it wasn’t long after that that he was signed.”

The Twins gave Castro a minor-league invite to Spring Training, but he immediately impressed the coaching staff.

“He’s the kind of guy, his actions do the talking,” says Baldelli. “He’s low maintenance. He just shows up and does everything right all the time, and you don’t have to be concerned about what he’s doing. All he does is work non-stop.”

Castro says he had multiple offers but was sold on the Twins immediately. He’s friends with Gio Urshela from their time together in the Guardians organization, and Urshela said that Minnesota treats players better than any other team. Castro spoke to his father about the opportunity, and together they devised a plan for him once he got to Fort Myers.

“I was talking to some of the managers of teams to see what was the plan they had for me,” says Castro. “And obviously, it was not gonna be a big-league contract. It was gonna be a minor league invited to Spring Training.

“So yeah, some of them I had a chance, but this team, that’s why I decided to come here, I had a little more chance to come here to play at the big-league level. Obviously, I came prepared to have a good Spring Training, that’s what happened, and we’re here.”

Ultimately, it came back to hustling, though.

Through the years, since I was in the minor leagues, I’ve always been the kinda player to hustle. If there’s a fly ball, hustling. You never know what’s gonna happen. And my dad one day, he told me about, ‘You see the little stuff, that’s the little stuff that I see on players.’ Like you hit a ground ball, don’t worry about it. It’s probably gonna be an out, to be honest. But you never know what’s gonna happen. Well, coaches see that.

But I don’t do it just for them to see me. I do it because I like to do that. That’s the kind of player that I am, and my dad told me that that little stuff that you do, like running out the ball, is gonna make you a longtime big leaguer.

Castro, 26, is hitting .262/.316/.434 and playing all over. He says he loves the infield but also enjoys playing in the outfield. Willi and Lilliano text after almost every game, never going more than two days without talking. Nobody knows Willi’s game better than Lilliano, save for maybe Willi himself. Lilliano will occasionally ask why he didn’t hit the cutoff man or about the route he took the ball. But often, he’s just reminding Willi to stay within himself.

“[Lilliano] always watches me,” says Castro, smiling. “He knows that I’m my own coach. He knows that I can do all the little things that I know is gonna get me better. But if he sees something that’s not clicking to him, he will tell me.”

Things are clicking right now. Castro hit .319/.355/.500 in May after hitting .177/.300/.324 in the first month of the season. He’s held his own all over the diamond and reveled in the opportunity to play every day. It’s something he’s earned through hustle. An international free agent who Cleveland traded and Detroit cut. A minor-league Spring Training invite who made the roster. The son of a coach who runs out ground balls and plays all over, cherishing that he gets to play the game he fell in love with at nine years old.

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