Apprenticeship complete, Castillo ready to take over
Cubs catcher bypassed winter ball, skipping Classic to focus on being starter
CHICAGO -- Welington Castillo heads into Spring Training with a backup, Dioner Navarro, who could pass for his older brother, and who he's hoping will guide him this season.
Castillo, 25, will start the year as the Cubs' No. 1 catcher for the first time in his young career. He opened the 2012 season at Triple-A Iowa and took over as the Cubs' regular catcher after Geovany Soto was dealt to the Rangers at the Trade Deadline. Castillo played in 52 big league games last season, batting .265 with five home runs and 22 RBIs.
He got 136 at-bats in August and September compared to now-third-stringer Steve Clevenger's 66. Clevenger didn't help himself by batting .121 after the All-Star break.
Castillo takes over Feb. 10, when the Cubs' pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, Ariz. He was so focused on being ready for the assignment, Castillo skipped playing in the Dominican Republic Winter League and worked out at a training facility in Bradenton, Fla., for five weeks.
"The focus is preparing your body for the season," he said of the daily 8 a.m. sessions.
Being prepared also was Castillo's reason for turning down the opportunity to play for the Dominican team in the World Baseball Classic.
"It's good experience," Castillo said of the opportunity to play in the Classic, "but I want to work with the pitchers and be ready for the season."
Which is where Navarro comes in. Navarro, a 2008 All-Star, has played for the Yankees, Dodgers, Rays and most recently the Reds, where he hit .290 in 24 games last season. He signed a one-year contract in November with the Cubs, much to the delight of pitcher Matt Garza. The two were teammates in Tampa from 2008-10.
"He's been around the league, and he's done a lot of stuff. [He's] gone to the postseason with myself, and [he's been] catching guys like me, [James] Shields, [David] Price and [Scott] Kazmir, when Kazmir was Kazmir, and [Edwin Jackson]," Garza said of Navarro.
Besides knowing Garza and Jackson, who's also now with the Cubs, Navarro is very similar to Castillo in appearance. Navarro is listed at 5-foot, 9-inches, 205 pounds; Castillo is 5-foot-10, 210 pounds.
"With a guy like him, you're not really changing a player," Garza said of Castillo. "It's not like you're going to get a 6-foot catcher. [Navarro and Castillo] are both the same height, the same build, and they keep runners off the basepaths the same."
Cubs manager Dale Sveum felt Castillo took a big step in his maturation as a player last season.
"It's not that 'yes' man anymore," Sveum said of the young catcher at the end of the 2012 season. "He'll actually have input on situations. There are definitely guys who are starting to step up and, going into Spring Training, it'll be a very different atmosphere than going into it this past spring."
Castillo took it as a challenge.
"I want to be a leader one day, and why not start now?" Castillo asked. "They're giving me an opportunity to be an everyday catcher, and I think I have to take advantage of that and start doing that now. I feel really good and appreciate the confidence they have in me."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.