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Washington Nationals Spring Training Preview: Starlin Castro and Nats expect big things in 2020

Coming off a strong second half in Miami in 2019, Starlin Castro is looking to play for a competitive team in D.C. in 2020.

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Starlin Castro hit 19 of his 31 doubles and 16 of his 22 home runs last season over 74 games and 305 plate appearances in the second half, after hitting 12 doubles and six home runs in 88 games and 371 PAs before the All-Star Break. Castro went from a .245/.272/.336 line in a tough first half, to .302/.334/.558 down the stretch for a Miami Marlins club that was not in the running for a postseason spot.

It wasn’t easy, especially for a player who’d been to the postseason twice in the previous four years while playing in Chicago (NL) and New York (AL).

“It’s kind of difficult,” Castro acknowledged after signing with the Washington Nationals on a 2-year/$12M deal earlier this winter, “because you get used to competing and winning every day, and getting to play in October.

“But that’s one of those things that I always put out of my mind that I can’t control. If it’s up to me, I’m always going to be on the good teams, but we don’t have the control in that kind of situation.”

“I don’t want these negative things to bother me on the field,” he added, “or bother me mentally. I just go to the field every day and try to do my best.”

His second-half surge, Castro explained, was the result of some changes he made at the plate after a disappointing start to his second season with the Fish following a trade from the Yankees.

“I just changed a little bit,” the 29-year-old, 10-year veteran said. “I think I hit too many balls into the ground and I opened a little bit my front foot, and I just said to myself ‘OK, I’m just going to try to hit the ball in the air. No matter what will happen, no matter what reason is going to be. It’s been tough already in the first half, and that’s one of the things that I did, I just said, ‘OK, let’s pull the ball. Let’s try to do launch angle, try to hit the ball in the air, and let’s see what happens.’ And it happened in the right way and with really good results.”

“I think he figured out his swing last year, and sometimes it’s never too late to do that,” Nats’ hitting coach Kevin Long told reporters at WinterFest last month, when he was asked what he saw from the veteran infielder while Castro was in Miami.

“He had a terrific second half,” Long continued, “... and I’ll kind of mow through that video and take a look at what I see, and I think we just kind of have to kind of keep him there, but certainly what he did and the way he swung the bat, it’s going to help our offense.”

GM Mike Rizzo said he saw a clear change in Castro late in the 2019 campaign. The infielder put up a .320/.350/.507 line with three doubles and three home runs in 19 games and 80 PAs vs the Nationals overall last season.

The fact that he was available for relatively little, and coming off a big second half was really appealing, Rizzo said.

“We’ve had good success with taking guys we think are on an uptick,” the GM explained. “This is a young player who’s 29 right now, he’s going to play at 30 this year. He seems old because he’s been in the big leagues for so long, but this is an accomplished player for his age, and a guy who’s done a really good job hitting the way he’s always hit.”

As for why Castro was available and signed for just $12M?

“We targeted him and went after him hard,” Rizzo explained.

“I can rarely speak for the industry, I try to take care of our own business, and we identified him early, so we signed him, we committed to him for two years, he wanted to be here, which I think has been what we’re hearing throughout the process and I think that’s a big reason he’s here.”

“I’ve been really a fan of Washington since I saw [Alfonso] Soriano play over there, you know,” Castro said when he was asked about his choice of free agent destinations.

“I really know Davey Martinez,” he added, noting that the two spent time together in Chicago before Martinez became the manager in D.C. “I played with him with the Cubs and we’re really tight. And I think that’s a really good organization that I saw play for my two years in Miami, and I always told my family if I can get in a position to make a decision, it’s going to be the Nationals.”