Minor league infield prospect Willi Castro put together a career year on the farm for the Cleveland Indians and headed to the Dominican Republic to participate in offseason activity in the Dominican Winter League. But after a hot start there, the 20-year-old shortstop has seen his last game action for 2017 as he has been shut down with a left knee injury sustained in the competitive offseason league.
Castro injured the knee on a slide in the third inning of a game against Los Gigantes de Cibao on October 24. He returned to Cleveland to be examined by a team doctor the following Monday, with an announcement by the club a week later confirming that he had sprained the MCL in his knee.
The fourth year pro was working in offseason league play for the first time in his career and was off to an impressive start as one of the top performers in the league. Through his first eight games, he had contributed a .448/.484/.586 slash line to the Leones del Escogido lineup with a homer, five runs scored, and six runs batted in. He was also performing well in the field in the small sample size, with just one error in those games.
Castro was coming off of a career year in his second stint and first full season at the High-A level with the Lynchburg Hillcats.
He appeared in the final three games of the 2016 season with the Hillcats after playing in 123 games for the Class-A Lake County, but his 2017 season started slowly in his return to Lynchburg. Unlike his eight games of DWL action, he was just 2-for-26 in his first 31 plate appearances over eight games for the Hillcats before the bat woke up. He hit in four straight games with a pair of multi-hit games (two of 40 such games on the year) and ended the month with another four-game streak with his first three-hit game of the season. It helped boost his average to .250 for April, the lowest of the five-month playing calendar for Castro.
Defensively, he was raw in the early part of the season, committing eight errors in the first month. He cut that total to six in May and five in June. Midway through the month, he was named to his second career All-Star team, following his nomination last season with the Captains.
He totaled 29 hits in each of May, June, and July, hitting a season-high .319 in May while hitting a season-best four homers and driving in 19 runs in June. His production in May also included a 12-game hitting streak. He added separate seven- and eight-game streaks in June.
He made just two errors in July and four in August and continued his hot hitting, batting .296 in July and .302 in the final full month of the season. He had a pair of six-game hitting streaks in the final two months of the campaign. Following the season, he was named a post-season All-Star in the Carolina League. He set new single-season career highs in runs (69), doubles (24), homers (11), RBI (58), walks (28), batting average (.290), on-base percentage (.337), slugging percentage (.424), OPS (.761), and total bases (199) and matched his previous high of 136 hits set the previous year. Nine different times over the course of the season he had three hits in a game, including a four-hit effort with three doubles on August 12 against the Winston-Salem Dash.
In four minor league seasons, the Puerto Rican native has slashed .268/.306/.377 over 359 games. He has worked exclusively as a shortstop since his debut season in the Arizona League, when he split time between second and short. He was last ranked the number nine prospect in the Indians organization on MLB Pipeline after former number one prospect Bradley Zimmer graduated off of the list.
Castro is expected to be healed and ready well in advance of spring training activities.
Photo: Leones del Escogido