The Pittsburgh Pirates made a surprising move on April 21st last year, promoting infield prospect Rodolfo Castro to the majors. The move was a surprise due to Castro being slated for Double-A at the time. It made sense, as the Pirates only needed a replacement for a brief time, with Castro only appearing in one game.
The bigger surprise came on July 6th, when the Pirates called Castro up from Double-A. This time, Castro got into some games, hitting three home runs in his first week in the majors. The Pirates also had called up Max Kranick to pitch in an extended role around the same time, with Kranick spending very little time in Triple-A before the call.
I talked with Pirates’ farm director John Baker about the moves, specifically Castro, to get a feel for whether the Pirates are more likely to promote from Double-A in the future.
“I think with Rodolfo, he was just proving to be the best and most versatile player at the time,” Baker said. “He’s played second and third base, but this kid can play shortstop, he switch hits, he hits for power. As we saw here in Pittsburgh, he can be a really dangerous offensive player.”
While Castro was in the majors, Baker’s biggest concern was his need for playing time to develop.
“I’m just texting [Pirates manager Derek] Shelton ‘I hope you’re playing Castro, because he needs this time to develop. Please put him in the lineup while he’s there.’” Baker said. “And he held his own while he was there, after playing A-ball the last place he was at.”
In Baker’s words, the main question for Castro, or any player to answer for a promotion is “Can this guy help our Major League team right now?”
“I think the first question you always ask is will he be a defensive liability?” Baker continued about Castro. “No, he’s going to be a defensive asset at a couple of positions on the field. And then, how is he going to respond to the adversity of facing major league pitching, and when you’ve got a kid like that that’s gone through what he’s gone through as a child in the D-R, just an incredible story of a human being. Mature and wise beyond the 22 years, and ready to handle the successes and failures of Major League Baseball.”
Castro returned to the Double-A level each time he went back to the minors, which was largely due to the relationship he has with shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz. The Pirates wanted Cruz and Castro playing together as much as possible, due to the way they feed off each other on the field. All of this raises the question as to the importance of Triple-A in the development path.
“For the most part, those top two levels are pretty close,” Baker said. “They’ve always been pretty close, but the advances over the last few years, everywhere you go it’s 97 with a nasty breaking ball. We’re confident that when those guys get the at-bats up the chain, it’s not a huge difference for them.”
In Castro’s case, he was the best option for the majors, despite being in Double-A. And since it didn’t make a difference whether he went to Triple-A or Double-A from a competition standpoint, as the Pirates were focused on sending him to the place where he could mature as a baseball player the most.
It won’t be the same for every player going forward.
“I think that some positions require more seasoning, more higher level competition,” Baker said. “For an everyday MLB position player, there are some things that Triple-A offers that Double-A doesn’t offer.”
There’s also the question of whether the Pirates can promote from Double-A when they return to being a winning team again. It’s one thing to promote Rodolfo Castro from Double-A for an extended look in the middle of a losing season. It’s another to make that move in July for a contender.
“In the future, it’s going to be really about winning baseball games every day here, and we’ll make some different decisions because of that,” Baker affirmed.