Willi Castro is no longer the youngest player on his team for the first time in his career. That honor goes to Triston McKenzie. Castro, now 20 years old, earned a preseason prospect ranking of 15 in the Cleveland Indians farm system, according to Baseball America. He started the season slow, hitting just .250 in April. Since then, he has turned up his performance and been a key hitter in the Hillcats lineup.
From the Dominican Republic, he has lived in Florida and Puerto Rico. The Indians signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2013 when he was only 16 years old. After two seasons playing in the Arizona League, first as a second baseman and then as a shortstop, he finally moved up to affiliated ball in 2015.
“I started playing baseball when I was ten,” said Castro. “I really liked baseball and my dad helped me out. I would play everywhere – third base, first base, pitcher, or catcher.”
Castro’s father, Liliano, is also a former minor league baseball player. A shortstop, he was signed by the Detroit Tigers and played two years in their farm system, at Batavia and Fayetteville.
Castro shared it was about five years ago when he became a regular shortstop. “When he [my father] signed with the Detroit Tigers, he was a shortstop, and he wanted me to be a shortstop.”
Shortstop is one of the more difficult positions as it requires range as well as instinct. Castro has adapted well, though some concerns about the number of errors he has accumulated still exist. He had 22 with Mahoning Valley, 25 with Lake County, and has 19 playing for the Hillcats. Eight of those were in April. Castro has been a key defensive player since, helping to turn 44 double plays so far this season.
Talking about what makes shortstop a challenging position, Castro said, “the positioning on relays and where you have to throw across the field, that’s the most difficult part for me.”
His father also worked as an instructor for the New York Mets and was instrumental in helping his son become a better all-around player. He also pushed him to take up switch-hitting.
“I used to be just right-handed,” said Castro. “He [my dad] told me I would have a better future if I started hitting lefty. I had a good approach and I got better at hitting lefty.”
Though he is a switch-hitter, his dominant right side remains the better one from which to hit. Currently he has a .343 batting average in 102 at-bats against left-handed pitchers, but only a .256 average in 176 at-bats versus right-handers. He shows power from both sides with 15 extra-base hits batting righty, and eight extra-base hits batting lefty. Four of his six home runs come from the right side. Back in April, his first home run of the season broke a 3-3 tie in Myrtle Beach in a game that the Hillcats would win 5-4.
At the plate, his general approach is an aggressive one. He struggled as a hitter early in the season, but hard work and greater consistency have led to improvements.
When asked about his hitting philosophy, Castro said, “Attack good pitches. Get a good fastball in the middle so I can drive it to the gap. This year I have my focus on getting good pitches to hit. Stay balanced so that every swing is 100%”
After his slow start, his contact and batting average jumped in May, when he hit .319 for the month. During that stretch, he had a team high 12-game hitting streak in which he hit at a .447 clip. June also started out hot, until the final series of the first half in Frederick. He started the four-game series with a .296 average. A 1-for-19 performance against the Keys dropped him below .275.
The Hillcats split the series in Frederick 2-2 after having dominated the Keys in the previous weekend, taking four consecutive games. Castro was just one example of those struggles.
Named to the Carolina League All-Star squad to replace other players since promoted to a higher level, he was the only Hillcats hitter to get a base hit in the contest. For the second consecutive year, he participated in his league’s All-Star game.
“It feels pretty good,” he said about getting to go to a second All-Star contest. “There are always a lot of good players and you can learn from them, and it’s a good experience playing with them.”
One of his All-Star teammates in 2016 was Cubs’ number one ranked prospect Eloy Jimenez, who will be appearing in the Futures Game for a second year this coming weekend.
“Six years ago, I used to practice with Eloy. He hadn’t signed yet, but he and I practiced for three months. Then I moved to another league. I always contact him when we are back in the Dominican.”
With the Hillcats clinching a first half Northern Division crown for the Carolina League, Castro was confident that this team had what it took to play well and win.
“Last year, the last two weeks [of the season] they sent me up and I got to see what it was about,” Castro said. “At the beginning of the season, I knew this team was going to do a really good job.”
The Hillcats captured the first half by winning a tiebreaker in head-to-head games against Salem, which also finished the first half with a 40-29 record. Castro’s hot hitting in May and June played a key role. For most of those two months, he hit in the five spot in the lineup. With six home runs and 38 RBI through 75 games, Castro is on pace to surpass his season highs in nearly every offensive statistic.
As a young player, he always liked Jose Reyes of the Mets. “He was always happy. He doesn’t care if he is struggling – he keeps his head up and does what he can.”
As the Hillcats have continued to battle Salem in the season’s second half, Castro is emulating his childhood idol. He has a .288 average and continues to be an important player in the Hillcats lineup. With his developing talent, if he can continue his performance, he has the ability one day to showcase his skills at the Major League level.