Transaction of Today…March 19, 1990 – The Atlanta Braves purchased Vinny Castilla from Saltillo (Mexican).
Don Baylor once said that he would not trade Vinny Castilla for Chipper Jones. Now…that’s probably a bunch of crap, but there was a time when Castilla – almost overnight – became a star. Of course, that was back when Coors Field made stars of guys who didn’t hit much elsewhere like Dante Bichette, Quinton McCracken, and Neifi Perez. Still, it had to be shocking for the Braves to see Castilla magically transform into the type of hitter who would go on to belt 320 major league home runs.
When Castilla signed with the Braves today 26 years ago, he was seen as an aggressive hitter with decent pop for a shortstop, but a hit tool that was likely going to limit his effectiveness to be much more than a utility player. He had spent a couple of years in the Mexican League before 1990 and the Braves paid $20,000 to sign Castilla (with almost all of it going to his team). After signing with Atlanta, he split the season between Sumter (low-A) and Greenville (AA), slashing just .257/.322/.385. He played a lot of shortstop, which seems hard to imagine for those of us who know him almost entirely as a third baseman. Castilla would split most of 1991 between Greenville and Triple-A Richmond, in which he OPS’d just .692. He finished the year as a bench player for the ’91 Braves, appearing in 12 games – mostly as a defensive replacement at shortstop or third base. The following year, 1992, Castilla OPS’d just .655 with the R-Braves and was hardly noticeable during a nine-game cameo in the majors.
Twenty-five years old, Castilla was a possibility for the 1993 bench after the Braves released Jeff Treadway. However, the future All-Star’s time with the Braves ended on December 17, 1992, when the Rockies took Castilla with the 40th pick of the expansion draft. He joined David Nied and Armando Reynoso as Braves farmhands that the Rockies grabbed in the expansion draft. Clint Hurdle, who would later become Castilla’s hitting coach and manager in Colorado, was managing the Mets’ AAA team in Tidewater when Castilla reached AAA and felt the skinny infielder was “nothing special” and “might make it as a utility player.” But he, like so many others, was wrong.
Castilla was a regular fixture of the inaugural Rockies team. He platooned at short, played in 105 games, and belted nine homers. Castilla also on-based just .283. He only played in 52 games during the strike-shortened 1994, plus 22 in the minors, though he hinted at big things to come with a .331/.357/.500 slash.
In 1995, the Rockies let Charlie Hayes go after the veteran handled the hot corner for the first two years of the franchise’s existence. Castilla would claim the position and never look back. An All-Star in ’95, Castilla also won a Silver Slugger while slashing .309/.347/.564. He quickly became part of what was a tremendous collection of offensive stars with Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker, Ellis Burks, and Bichette. The Rockies were a surprise contender and took home the NL West title with a first-round matchup with the Braves on the docket. It was a chance for Castilla to put a hurting on the team that left him unprotected in the 1993 expansion draft. While the Rockies would ultimately lose in four games, you couldn’t blame Castilla as he had seven hits, including a double and three home runs (two off Greg Maddux).
Over the next three seasons, he hit 40 or more home runs each year – one of just four third baseman to accomplish that feat and of those other three, only Eddie Matthews did it in three consecutive seasons like Castilla.
1998 was his finest season. He finished 11th in the MVP race, won his third and final Silver Slugger, and reached some big traditional benchmarks (108 RS, 206 H, 46 HR, 144 RBI) along with some nice sabermetric accomplishments (.401 wOBA, 121 wRC+, 4.5 fWAR). He was on top of the world, but the Rockies nucleus was both aging and expensive – plus they hadn’t won much with them. Galarraga signed with Atlanta in ’98 and after a woeful fifth-place finish in 1999, the Rockies let Bichette leave via free agency and traded Castilla.
Joining another expansion team, Castilla became the starting third baseman for the third edition of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It went awful. With the thin air of Denver no longer boosting his flyballs, Castilla struggled to a .221/.254/.308 slash while missing significant time. His struggles continued into 2001 until the Rays released the third baseman a month into the season. The Astros, who were using the woeful Chris Truby at third base, went for the upgrade and signed Castilla for the rest of the year. Moving back to both the NL and a park that helped hitters like “Enron Park” (as it was known) re-established Castilla as a solid major league player. He slashed .270/.320/.492 after his mid-May signing and helped to deliver a playoff berth for the Astros. Six years after facing the Braves in the 1995 NLDS, Castilla got a second shot to down the Braves in ’01. Castilla homered in Game One off Braves closer John Smoltz and had three hits overall in the series, but the Astros were outscored 14-6 over the three games.
After 2001, Castilla figured that if you can’t beat them, join them. Or in Castilla’s case, re-join them. In an effort to help Chipper Jones keep fresher legs, the Braves moved their All-Star third baseman to left field and added Castilla. The TBS announcers were always quick to point out that Castilla provided a defensive boost at third base, though his defense was never great and by his mid-30’s, it was more accurate to say Castilla made the plays he could get to. That’s good and all, but he simply didn’t have much range. In ’02, he also didn’t have a bat. Quick, name the worst OBP by an Atlanta Brave (min 500 PA). You might remember that it’s Andres Thomas, who did the impossible and on-based .228 in 1989. Second place on this list of futility? Vinny Castilla, who on-based just .268 in 2002. He did pick up seven hits, including his fifth postseason home run, in Atlanta’s NLDS loss to the Giants.
In 2003, Castilla’s numbers improved (though still far-removed from his Rockies days) and after the Braves lost the NLDS to the Cubs, Castilla was allowed to leave Atlanta for the second time. The Braves went with Mark DeRosa and after that failed miserably, Atlanta moved Chipper back to third. Meanwhile, Castilla returned to the Mile High City and had a bit of a resurgence. He hit 35 home runs (one more than he hit with the Braves) and led the National League in RBIs (if that means anything to you). He also picked up his only 40-double season. Still, his return to Colorado was brief as the Nationals signed Castilla ahead of 2005. While the Nats weren’t an expansion team, they were playing in Washington for the first time. Castilla held down the position for Ryan Zimmerman, who had just been drafted. His numbers fell more in line with his Braves experience than the Rockies numbers he had posted the previous year. In 2006, Castilla spent time with the Padres and – for a third time – Colorado, but struggled as a 38-year-old. It would be his final year in the majors.
Castilla would return home and had a run as a player/manager for Hermosillo. He also managed Team Mexico in the 2007 PanAm Games and the 2009 World Baseball Classic. In addition, Castilla worked as a special assistant coach for the Rockies from 2012-15.
Twenty-six years ago today, the Braves signed Castilla, a player who would eventually become the Mexican leader in runs scored, hits, doubles, and home runs. Not bad for a guy who was “nothing special.”