All the big prizes on the table for Castillo

Ace eyes everything from Opening Day start to Cy Young in first full season with Mariners

February 28th, 2023

PEORIA, Ariz. -- isn’t headed to the World Baseball Classic, but he could be headed to a monster season. And he makes it no secret what his goals are entering 2023.

“Make the Opening Day start. Make an All-Star team. Cy Young,” Castillo said through an interpreter after his Cactus League debut on Tuesday.

“La Piedra” (translated to “the rock”) allowed one unearned run and two hits with two strikeouts over two innings in the Mariners' 9-8 win over the Guardians. His fastball sat in the low 90s, expected at this time of year, and he landed his slider for both punchouts.

That pitch became a weapon for Castillo last year to pair with his two- and four-seam fastballs, which move in the opposite direction of each other. The slider has become his best secondary pitch after he broke into the league in 2017 with a plus-plus changeup.

“A dominant changeup,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “And of course, hitters make adjustments, they know that’s a big part of his game, [the changeup] at the bottom of the strike zone. So what we saw last year is a lot of his strikeouts came from the fastball that was elevated from that slot, along with the slider. [The slider] is a really important pitch getting back into counts against left-handed hitters.

“Those are things we talked about with him, ‘Let’s continue to do this. They’ll be focused on where you’re trying to target your slider, and where that needs to go in certain counts.'”

Another adjustment Castillo has made has been the elimination of the knee twitch he had while pitching from the stretch, a movement that would now yield a balk. 

“I really liked it,” Castillo said. “I kind of miss it because when I did it, it kind of helped my sleeves move up a little bit, which made my arms feel a little more free.”

What Castillo provided in less than three months last year has the Mariners salivating at what that type of production could lead to over a full season. Castillo was arguably the Majors’ biggest difference-maker for his acquiring team among the blockbuster deals at last year’s Trade Deadline -- especially for his epic postseason efforts.

Castillo blanked the juggernaut Blue Jays on the road in Game 1 of the American League Wild Card Series and followed it up with seven brilliant innings in Game 2 of the AL Division Series, masked by one bloop and a blast in an eventual loss. He also marveled in huge games down the stretch, beginning with his Mariners debut in New York, when he drew comparisons to franchise icon Félix Hernández.

“It was an unforgettable experience,” Castillo said. “It was a long time before this team had been in the playoffs. What stood out to me most was the work that everybody put in, whether it’s the players, the coaches, we all put in that work to get as far as we did.”

Yet even before those big October moments, Castillo quickly felt at home in Seattle -- enough to sign a five-year, $108 million extension last September that runs through 2027 and could go to a vesting sixth year for $25 million if he pitches at least 180 innings in ‘27. Had the Mariners not locked him up, Castillo would have been a free agent after ‘23.

“You know that this is a business, and one day you can be here and then you can be somewhere else in a short time,” Castillo said. “But when I got here, I just felt very comfortable. I felt comfortable even with all the talent that we had here. I knew that I wanted to stay.”

In 11 regular-season starts after the trade, Castillo had a 3.17 ERA, 117 ERA+ (league average is 100), 77 strikeouts, 17 walks and six homers allowed in 65 1/3 innings, holding 266 hitters to a .226/.286/.350 (.636 OPS) slash line.

“We knew he was competitive, and all of our reports say this guy likes the big moments,” Servais said. “But he hadn’t been in a lot of them. From the first time he put on our uniform in Yankee Stadium to the end, he was phenomenal. Just awesome.”