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Nats, Castilla Keep It in Perspective

Third Baseman Will Be Asked to Lead, Won't Be Expected to Post Huge Numbers

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page D05

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 22 -- The ball seemed to jump off Vinny Castilla's bat, a crisp line drive followed by another, as he swung at a field down the road from Space Coast Stadium. He is 37, and not even a season removed from leading the National League in runs batted in. He is considered among the Washington Nationals' most important offseason acquisitions, a veteran who can hit for power, field his position almost flawlessly and lead a team.

But as excited as Nationals officials are about Castilla's arrival at spring training, they are realistic in their assessment of how much he can be expected to propel the team's offense. Last year, he drove in 131 runs. But in the minds of some, what he did isn't nearly as important as where he did it -- in Colorado, at Coors Field, where the air is thin and the hitting is fine.

The Nats' Vinny Castilla led the NL with 131 RBI for the Rockies last season. He has had his greatest offensive success when batting at Coors Field in Denver. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

"Every number in Coors Field is skewed -- every single one," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said. "Always has been. Always will be."

Castilla is the proof of that theory, for his numbers at Coors are starkly better than in all the other parks in which he has played. Though he is quick to point out that he slugged 21 of his 35 homers on the road last year, over the course of his career Castilla has hit .334 with a home run every 14.3 at-bats at Coors, and just .256 with a homer every 24.4 at-bats everywhere else. Last year, even with all the homers on the road, his slugging percentage and batting average in Denver (.575 and .321, respectively) were drastically higher than either on the road (.493 and .218).

"I think in Colorado, you hit for more average," Castilla said. "The field is so big, and the ball carries, and the outfield plays deep, so any bloop thing is going to be a hit. But for home runs, you still got to hit them. It's true the ball travels a lot better than other places. But if you don't hit it, it ain't going nowhere."

Still, the Nationals, who signed Castilla to a two-year, $6.2 million contract in November, aren't expecting Coors-type numbers from him this year. "If you want to judge what our expectations are of him," Bowden said, "it's what he did in Atlanta and Houston." From 2001 to 2003 with those clubs (as well as 24 games with Tampa Bay), Castilla hit .256 and averaged 19.7 homers and 76 RBI.

During that time, though, scouts and other officials believe Castilla became a better hitter. In Atlanta, he hit eighth in a lineup that was stocked. For someone who long had been expected to drive in runs, he had to take a different approach because he hit in front of the pitcher. He began to hit the ball the opposite way more frequently. He took more pitches. Aggression turned to patience.

"Those things made him a better, tougher hitter, and a tough out," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said.

"He took you to right field," Nationals ace Livan Hernandez said. "He didn't used to do that. It made him very difficult to face."

But as much as Castilla's offensive production -- even if it's a fraction of what he produced last season -- should help the Nationals score runs, it is his glove that might quietly be more important. Last year, he made just six errors.

"I think that's the most important addition we made in the offseason," second baseman Jose Vidro said. "You know why? He's not just a quality third baseman. He's one of the best third basemen out there. People talk about what he'll do for our lineup. But think about his defense, at one of the toughest positions. It's going to take a lot of pressure off the pitchers."

In his playing days, which came to a close just last summer, Barry Larkin used to look down the third base line, see Castilla in the opposing jersey, and salivate a bit. "He's not a blazer," Larkin said. So a few times, Larkin, for 19 years the shortstop of the Cincinnati Reds, dropped down a bunt and started blazing himself.

"I would know -- know -- that I'd have it," Larkin said Tuesday. "And then -- Bang! -- I'd be out. It was like, 'What the . . . ?' "

It's worth remembering that when he was in his early twenties, Castilla came up through the Atlanta organization as a shortstop. It wasn't until 1995 that the Rockies moved him to third. The benefits, though, might still be paying off.

"I think shortstop is the toughest position in the infield," Castilla said. "If you can play shortstop, I think you can play all the positions in the infield."

Tuesday afternoon, Castilla sat at his locker, and already seemed to fit in. He had already been initiated by a prank the day before, when pitcher Esteban Loaiza did his best to convince him he would be wearing No. 6 with the Nationals, rather than his customary 9. Loaiza even had the clubhouse managers make up a fake nameplate for Castilla's locker.

Loaiza, though, knows as much as anybody how much Castilla can mean not only to the Nationals, but also to an entire country. Both players are Mexican. Last month, Loaiza traveled to his homeland to watch Castilla help lead Mexico to its first title in the Caribbean World Series.

"I think he's the greatest hitter who ever played in the big leagues as a Mexican hitter," Loaiza said. "He means a lot to kids who have played Little League. They admire him and want to be like him."

To add to that kind of reputation, Castilla will have to continue to produce in Washington. One hundred thirty-one RBI? Doubtful. But someone suggested to him a scaled-back version, maybe 30 homers and 100 RBI. He smiled at the thought.

"If I'm healthy," he said, "why not?"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company