MESA, Ariz. — Welington Castillo heard it from teammates after admiring the home run he crushed onto Cubs Park’s left-field berm during an intrasquad scrimmage.
No one here can match Alfonso Soriano’s hops, bat flips and swagger. But Castillo listened when Soriano told him to stay hungry and not take the game for granted. Castillo paid attention to the way Soriano worked in the weight room and followed his routine every day. Their families hung out together a few times this winter in the Dominican Republic.
Maybe Castillo can copy Soriano’s style and substance, because the Cubs need some leadership, attitude and certainty behind home plate. Catcher is such a critical position, as well as the biggest weakness in a top-five farm system.
What if Castillo injured his hamstring and missed a significant amount of time? (Starlin Castro said Sunday he hopes to play in Cactus League games later this week.) If the Cubs are going to surprise anyone this season — or next year — they will need their catcher to raise his game to another level.
Castro and Anthony Rizzo took up most of the oxygen during Dale Sveum Watch, The Cubs Way hitting philosophy breakdown and the rollout of new manager Rick Renteria.
But Castillo quietly started to figure it out during the second half of last season, hitting six of his eight homers after the All-Star break while drawing 21 walks and putting up an .863 OPS.
“I just started to get more comfortable,” Castillo said. “I felt like: ‘Hey, I belong here.’ Facing the same guys, the same teams, I know how they’re going to pitch me.
“I just simplified everything: ‘Don’t try to think. Don’t try to do (too much). You’ve been doing this for your whole life. This is your time. Just try to show them what you got.’”
During his first full season as a big-league catcher, Castillo had to earn respect and convince a skeptical pitching staff. That tension bubbled to the surface with Matt Garza lobbying to have Dioner Navarro as his personal catcher. The Cubs indulged their most valuable trade chip, to make sure they could make the best possible deadline deal.
After his first Cactus League outing, Jeff Samardzija went out of his way to praise Castillo, a catcher he’s seen evolve from Double-A Tennessee to Triple-A Iowa to Wrigley Field.
“Everything I’ve done in this camp has been with Wely,” said Samardzija, the likely Opening Day starter. “The way he’s improving is unbelievable. We expect a lot of each other, and I really like where we’re at.”
“He’s a very positive guy back there,” new pitcher Jason Hammel said. “I like it.”
Insiders have noticed Castillo’s body language this spring, the way he’s handled interviews and the Wall of Fame by his locker that features photos of iconic catchers.
“He’s grown up a lot,” catching coach Mike Borzello said. “He’s confident. When you’re dealing with someone where English is the second language, it’s a little more of a task to get them to come out of their shell. I feel like I would be the same way if the roles were reversed (in the Dominican Republic). To get my message across to Spanish-speaking people, I wouldn’t be as confident with my message. That’s where we’re trying to go, but he’s getting there.”
Castillo will turn 27 in April, and this will be his 10th season in the organization. He knows he has to stay healthy and stay on the field. He played 113 games last season before getting shut down in late September to have arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. His 2.8 defensive WAR led all big-league catchers. He knows there are still questions about the way he calls a game.
“They see the work that I do,” Castillo said. “That’s how you get the respect from everybody. It’s something that I can never stop doing, because I have to learn from any mistake and keep working hard and study all the hitters to get the results from pitchers. Make them feel comfortable with me.
“They know I know what I’m doing behind the plate, because they saw me spend a lot of time in the video room on scouting reports. This year will be like way easier than last year.”
Castillo doesn’t get as much attention as the prospects, and he’s not automatically grouped with Rizzo and Castro in the young core. But Castillo’s development is central to this rebuilding project. The Cubs are waiting for him to put it all together.