Erik Castro has flown beneath the radar this season and I think he likes it that way. He was very modest in discussing his season accomplishments with me which include 25 doubles, 21 home runs and 91 RBIs to date. The stacked lineup at Lancaster which includes Domingo Santana, Telvin Nash and, until recently, George Springer has helped Erik in that he has seen a lot of good pitches to hit, but it has also overshadowed his contributions.
Manager Rodney Linares is paying attention though, "He's been the most consistent hitter we've had all year. He's got a chance to drive in 100 runs. He's got a chance to hit 25 home runs." Linares praised Erik for the work he has put in as he comes back from an arm injury that has limited him to playing first base, a position he has played very adeptly. But it is Erik's bat that gets Linares excited, "I love his bat especially now that he's hitting with power to the opposite field."
When talking with Erik, one is left with the impression of someone who is highly intelligent and who has thought things through pretty thoroughly, whether it's the state of the Astros farm system or his place in that system.
Here's what Erik had to say when I talked to him earlier this month ~
On his career thus far: "I had a decent first short season [in 2009] and then I got hurt, had surgery and didn't play in 2010. In 2011, last year, I kind of split time and didn't play too much. I got 250 at bats. I just wasn't an everyday guy. Luckily this year I got the opportunity to [play regularly] and I'm just trying to take advantage."
On his 2012 success and the Lancaster lineup: "They're a big reason why I'm having the year I am, especially with George hitting in front of me. You couldn't ask to hit behind somebody like that. When he gets on base I see a lot better pitches. When he's not on base it's really different. Domingo drives me in. It's just a nice line up to be in. In '09, we had [Jose] Altuve, [Jake] Goebbert, J.D. Martinez and I hit behind J.D. so I had it going well in '09 too with them. It's important who you hit behind. It helps. I can't take all the credit. You can't drive in runs without people being on base."
What does he need to do to get to the next level developmentally?: "I still think I need to finish strong. I was pretty hot in the first half and I've kind of tapered off average-wise in the second half, but I'm still being productive with RBIs and home runs. I think just trying to be consistent. I think my goal for the rest of the season is to keep driving in runs and to keep being a run-producer, getting on base, scoring and driving runs in. The average will take care of itself then.
"Things I need to work on? I could always get better defensively. I used to primarily be a third baseman. I used to be able to play the outfield a little bit but since my shoulder surgery, they've kind of put me over to first so maybe something in the off-season to work on is [getting] back to playing a few more positions so I have a little more opportunity in the organization. I wouldn't say I've been the best defender my whole life, but I've always enjoyed playing defense and in college I was a pretty decent third baseman. I've always prided myself on being a good defender. I enjoy it. I enjoy playing defense." [Note: Erik has a .992 fielding percentage at first base this season and a 9.02 RF/G.]
Which Astros pitcher would you least like to face?: "To be honest with you, there was one guy in Spring Training that I hated facing and it was Tropeano. I hated facing him. It just seemed like every time I faced him, he struck me out. Or if I hit him, I'd hit a weak nubber back to the pitcher. He's got a lot of movement on his ball, throws a split finger. So, yeah, I don't like facing Nick."
Who on the team makes him laugh?: "A lot of the guys. Of course, Kike is hilarious. He keeps everybody pretty loose. I would say Grant has a different humor, but Kike I would say is definitely the class clown. Actually I think Moon's pretty funny too. For how little English he speaks, he's pretty funny."
What would he do if he couldn't play baseball?: "I'd probably want to work in a sports agency, sports management. I like helping kids go through situations that I've been through whether it's community college, pro ball, just to be able to help people who go through the process because a lot of people don't understand how hard it is to do what we do. People think we're living the dream ... and we are in a way, but a lot of people don't understand the hard decisions that come with choosing to go to college, what college to go to, choosing to play in the minor leagues where you're gone from your family and things like that so I think I would enjoy working in the sports management area just to be able to help other kids that are going through this process."
On the changes to the Astros farm system: "I think Mr. Luhnow is doing a really great job to be honest with you. He addressed some areas in our farm system where we needed help. He went out and got a ton of pitching and he's stockpiling our minor leagues to make sure that we're good for the future, and I think that's what needed to happen. You can see the success that our minor leagues are having this year as opposed to last year. I've been here since '09. We've never been good. In '09 I was on one of the worst Tri-City teams. Last year, I think we were the worst team in minor league baseball and it was just kind of depressing.
"I feel like the culture's definitely changed this year. I'm not saying we're the best team ever but you can see that we're winning. The AA team is winning. We're about .500. I think Lexington is [winning] too. Tri-City is just doing such a great job. I think that the culture's changing that now if we were to go under .500, we would be like, 'Oh, shoot,' like this isn't really how it is any more so we have to step it up. I think as an organization we've kind of embraced it and I think that we're headed in the right direction. As much as people want to say the Astros are painful to watch (I think I heard Tim Kurkjian say that on ESPN or something like that), I think we're moving in the right direction and it's nice to see.
"In past years, if you're doing well, you're moving up. And I think there's still opportunity to move up but it's becoming harder and that's a good thing to see in an organization. If a guy's having a good year, if he was here a year ago, there's no way he'd stay here. We've stockpiled our minor leagues so deep that even a top prospect having a good year is going to stay in one spot. It's kind of crazy to see."
Erik has quietly gone about making a statement this season. He has told us he can hit for average, he can hit for power, he can field, he is healthy and he is willing to do whatever it takes to improve his versatility and value to the organization. He has made those statements with his bat and his glove and his hard work.