Willi Castro Deserves To Be An All-Star This Year

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Rocco Baldelli likes having switch hitters like Willi Castro because he can pencil them into the lineup every day.

“[When] Willi starts playing as well as he’s been playing for us, and he’s pretty healthy, durable guy, it’s like, ‘Well, when do you take him out of the lineup?’” Baldelli asked rhetorically. “Why would you take him out of the lineup, ever? Because he can play every day against everybody and be productive, and there’s no matchup issue, ever.”

Castro didn’t make the All-Star team this year, but he was deserving. He’s playing every day, hitting .272/.359/.441 (126 OPS+) and playing all over the field. Castro can fill in center field when Byron Buxton is hurt and third base when Royce Lewis is out. By hitting well and playing all over, Castro has created a virtuous cycle. He becomes more productive the more he plays. And the better he plays, the more likely he will get another start.

“The more I play, the better I play,” said Castro. “This rhythm that I’m in, it’s because I’m in there every day, staying focused. I feel really good. That’s my No. 1 goal, to stay healthy, and if I have that, I want to play. Every day.”

Castro had to earn playing time, though. He earned Rookie of the Year votes with the Detroit Tigers in 2020, but they cut him after the 2022 season. Derek Falvey informed Baldelli that the Minnesota Twins had signed Castro on his way back from his favorite brewery, Tree House Brewing, in Charlton, Mass.

“We got some kind of fortunate going out and signing him,” Baldelli said. “I’m glad Willi wanted to sign here. This has worked out in a huge way.”

It was a low-wattage move for a post-hype prospect, but post-hype prospects have fueled Minnesota’s success this season. Baldelli only played Castro sporadically after they acquired him. However, he broke out in late May last year and has built off a solid season last year.

Castro was hitting .280/.339/.449 on June 1 last season and finished the season hitting .257/.339/.441. He still offered the Twins value as a utility player who can play the infield and the outfield. Now he’s become invaluable because he’s hitting better and still playing all over. On Sunday, Castro started the game at second base, only to move to shortstop when Carlos Correa injured his hand in the first inning.

It would have been difficult to project Castro’s improved hitting this season. However, his father was a prospect with Detroit in the late ‘80s and is a longtime baseball coach. Willi remembers his father, Lilliano, coaching the 2006 New York Mets, who won 97 games. Willi’s influences from that team include Carlos Beltrán, Lucas Duda, and Carlos Delgado. However, four-time All-Star José Reyes was his favorite player.

“Reyes was the guy,” he said, “[who] inspired me to become the player that I am right now.”

Castro’s father was his biggest influence, though. He grew up learning the game from a professional coach who taught him how to hit and encouraged him to play all over. Castro has developed an involved pre-game routine that allows him to play any position the Twins need to on a moment’s notice.

After warming up, he takes ground balls at second base, working on his double-play pivot. However, if he’s at third base, he locks in on those long throws across the diamond. If he’s in the outfield that day, he works on spotting the ball on the run or coming in quickly on bloopers.

Castro participates in the hitters’ meetings, preparing for that day’s opposing pitcher. Then he gets into the cage to take some left-handed swings, trying to increase his power. If he’s hitting right-handed, he works on pulling the ball a little more to take advantage of an often-shifted defense. Castro also needs to take extra right-handed swings because there are more right-handed pitchers in the league, and he must maintain both swings.

“It’s a lot,” said Castro. “You’ve got to work in the infield, in the outfield, every position, to stay ready for anything. And I try to take the same amount of swings as everyone else, then take them from the other side, too. I love it. It’s a rhythm, and I’m used to it. I’ve been doing that my whole life.”

Castro has a complicated routine but has found a way to simplify things. He focuses on the position he’ll play that day. Castro only takes batting practice in the cage because he feels he’ll chase power and focus less on his mechanics if he hits outside. It’s too tempting to see a ball he hit crash into the bleachers and try to hit one further. In the cage, he can focus more on making solid contact.

It’s easy to underestimate the value Castro brings. People often undervalue utility players because they don’t hold down a single position. Power hitters garner more attention than players with good bat-to-ball skills. However, the Twins aren’t the same team without Castro. He fills in defensive holes and always gives them a good at-bat. It’s enough to keep Castro in the lineup every day, and that alone is enough of a reward for him.

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Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Willi Castro is headed to the All-Star Game next week as a replacement for Jose Altuve, who’ll be replaced himself by Marcus Semien in the starting lineup. […]

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