Spring training has begun, and with it a wave of optimism has run through the Mets camp in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Everybody looks better than ever. There is everlasting hope that lays before the Mets, because the season has yet to begin. We don’t know exactly what lays ahead of us, so we have every reason to hope that this will be the season where everything breaks the Mets way and they win that elusive World championship.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than the articles written about Luis Castillo this spring. He’s dropped 17 pounds! He’s playing with a new-found intensity! He’s got something to prove! The hop is back in his step! Maybe, just maybe, he’s back to being the old Luis Castillo!
Well, I hate to be the turd in the punch bowl, especially this early into spring training, but I would be slow to jump on the Luis Castillo bandwagon. The fact of the matter is, while it’s fantastic that Castillo decided to show up for spring training in shape this season, he still has a lot of fundamental flaws in his game. Simply being in shape for the first time since signing his large contract extension with the Mets will not make these flaws go away.
First, there is Castillo’s lack of power. This isn’t new, obviously; Luis Castillo has never been a power hitter. He has fewer home runs for his career than were hit by David Wright and Carlos Delgado last season. He’s also not much for hitting line drives; over the past five years, only once has Castillo hit higher than 20% of his balls in play for line drives. Basically, when Luis Castillo hits the ball in the air, it is more likely than not to be caught.
What has made Luis Castillo a .300 hitter for much of his career is not his power, but his speed. Castillo’s value has been tied to his ability to beat ground balls for singles. If Castillo can’t beat out a grounder, he can’t be a good hitter. Unfortunately for the Mets, he had double knee surgery shortly before he signed with the team, which has helped to sap him of much of that speed. Even in better shape this season, he can’t regain the mobility lost in those knees.
Then there is Castillo’s defense. This is an area that has dropped off significantly the past few years. Frankly, if Luis Castillo can’t play a passable second base, he can’t play in the major leagues. His bat is not nearly good enough to play any other position, and if he can’t handle second base or shortstop, he has no role in the majors anymore. Last year, his glove played worse at 2B than anybody who played significant time there. If he is in shape, and his knees aren’t bothering him, best case scenario means he’s passable as a second baseman. Anything less, and he’s an expensive sinkhole.
What I don’t understand is why the Mets never got involved on Orlando Hudson. I can understand their reluctance on Manny. He’s very very expensive, he’s getting old, and while I think his personality issues have been grossly exaggerated, that issue is on the table too. He would be awesome in this lineup, no doubt, but there are enough legitimate red flags to where I could see passing him up, especially at $25 million a season.
But Orlando Hudson just signed for one year and $3.4 million! That contract is not going to put this team over the luxury tax threshold even if he hits all of his bonus clauses. While I went back and forth on him this offseason, my biggest problem with a Hudson signing was that I figured he would command too many years for the production he would be worth. But for one season? To make Luis Castillo irrelevent? Why not get involved?
That said, I do think that moving Castillo to the leadoff position could benefit him. The Mets blogosphere has seemed pretty cold to this move, as have the media, but it makes sense if you look at the numbers. Castillo still possesses a keen batting eye, and is very capable at drawing walks. While Reyes has made improvements in this area, Castillo still has the better batting eye, and getting more walks from the leadoff spot would benefit the team.
In addition, Castillo’s offensive game is ill-suited for a #2 hitter, because he hits a high percentage of ground balls. More than 60% of the balls he hits are on the ground. If Jose Reyes is on first base, Castillo’s high percentage of ground balls becomes a severe detriment, opening himself up for double plays, or forceouts. The best possible result in this scenario is an error. Even if Castillo’s knees are fully operational, his high percentage of ground balls makes him ill-suited to bat behind Reyes, or really anybody.
Are the benefits of moving to a Castillo/Reyes/Wright top of the batting order that great? Probably not, although it would line the players up in a more ideal fashion and maximize the team’s run scoring potential. It would have been nice if the team understood that Luis Castillo is a sunk cost, that they have wasted $24 million on a player who will return little if any benefits. It would have been nice if they had made the call to upgrade a position where they received nothing last season, and earned themselves an extra win or two just by having competency at second base.
They failed to do that. I understand trying to find hope when the season seems so far away, but there’s a difference between hope and foolishness. Luis Castillo should be better than what he was last season, but that’s because he was the worst everyday player in the majors in 2008. The Mets should be expecting more out of second base, particularly if they really do have dreams of competing this season.