Diamondbacks’ Adrian Del Castillo, Cristian Mena showing encouraging signs in Triple-A

Jun 3, 2024, 12:05 PM

Arizona Diamondbacks prospect and Triple-A Reno catcher Adrian Del Castillo is making arguments to get a major league look at some point this season.

The 24-year-old is having the best minor league season of his career with a .340/.391/.612 slash line and 10 homers as we get into June. He went through a stretch in May in which he had six straight multi-hit games. Six!

Del Castillo redirected a 97-mph heater on the outer half of the plate the other way for a walk-off double last Tuesday night, his second walk-off hit of the month as he maintained the momentum he built in April.

“My whole life I’ve been a line drive hitter, more of a doubles guy than a homer person,” Del Castillo told Arizona Sports’ Ain’t No Fang podcast on Friday. “When you get a hold of one here, it goes. I can’t let that get to my head. I’m not a super power hitter, I’m a guy that’s gonna split the gaps.”

The 2021 second-round pick out of Miami has been peppering line drives to all fields, not relying on the long ball in Reno to produce offensively. He still leads the Pacific Coast League in slugging percentage and is second in total bases at 126.

Paired with his increased line drive rate is a sharp drop in strikeouts this year. Del Castillo struck out 28.9% of the time in 37 games after getting promoted to Reno last year. That figure has dropped to 18.5% through 51 games this season, although his walks have also fallen as he is putting everything into play.

“He’s controlled the zone well and he’s hitting the ball hard,” D-backs farm director Shaun Larkin told Arizona Sports. “You match those two up, you swing at good pitches, take the bad ones and hit it hard when you do hit it, good things happen. He’s done that consistently over the past couple of months.”

“So you have a left-handed hitter who is impacting the ball, putting together good at-bats and he’s receiving the ball better than he ever has,” Larkin added. “He’s put himself in a really good position to get in some of these conversations here if it continues.”

Del Castillo has made much progress since his .649 OPS across three levels in 2022.

Adrian Del Castillo still making strides defensively

Del Castillo was the fourth catcher left in spring training before getting sent back to the minors in favor of starter Gabriel Moreno, veteran Tucker Barnhart and incumbent backup Jose Herrera.

The Aces have split catching reps between him and Herrera.

Larkin said that is the nature of the roster construction, not an indictment. Del Castillo said he has learned a lot from Herrera as well as Reno manager and former catcher Blake Lalli.

“Herrera has been really good. He’s been taking me through situations that happened during the game and explaining like, ‘You should do this, you shouldn’t do this,’ whatever it may be,” Del Castillo said.

Del Castillo has graded out as a hit-first player in the minor leagues. But Larkin pointed to significant growth in his receiving ability.

“The catching side of it, he’s a totally different catcher than he was last year,” Larkin said. “Last year on the grades, he graded out a tick below or so below average. This year, he’s on the other side of that now. He’s a tick above average on the receiving part of it. Those are really encouraging.”

Del Castillo has only caught 19% of base stealers, however, although his transfers have gotten quicker. Larkin said he continues to develop as a game caller.

The prospect pointed to experience in the Puerto Rican Winter League catching in highly intense atmospheres, preseason drills and a familiarity with his pitching staff as factors in his improvement.

“The more games you catch the more comfortable you get back there and you see the same guys everyday on the staff,” Del Castillo said. “We worked on it a lot this instructs this year and then in spring training. We did some crazy stuff with foam balls and different types of gloves. It definitely helped to go out there and perform my best with receiving.”

Asked what steps he needs to make before making the big leagues, Del Castillo said it goes back to ironing out his defense and the mental aspect of catching.

The Diamondbacks have not made any changes to their catching depth chart this season.

Herrera is on the 40-man roster. Del Castillo is not. Herrera has already been trusted to step into postseason environments.

Barnhart, another left-handed hitter, has provided a valued veteran presence as Moreno’s backup. But he has a dismal .494 OPS this year with two extra-base hits. Moreno for that matter has not had a great start with the bat either (.647 OPS).

Del Castillo represents going in a different direction with the backup catcher spot if the D-backs decide change is needed or injury forces their hand.

Checking in with Cristian Mena, developing rotation help

Cristian Mena is a right-handed starter acquired from the Chicago White Sox last offseason for outfielder Dominic Fletcher who has shown plenty of signs for encouragement.

At only 21 years old, Mena is the youngest player on the D-backs’ 40-man roster by five months. He has handled himself in a tough league for pitchers with a 4.43 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 61 innings. His swansong is his ability to land multiple plus offspeed pitches.

“What’s been working for him in Reno is he’s got two plus breaking balls, a big sweeping slider and a power curveball up to 87 mph,” Aces pitching coach Jeff Bajenaru told Arizona Sports. “The slider is the same at like 85-87 mph but they do two different things and that gets him a lot of swing-and-miss.”

Bajenaru was complimentary of Mena’s maturity on the mound and off it so far.

That swing-and-miss potential has helped Mena keep runs off the board through traffic, which has been present.

The area Mena has had inconsistency with is his fastball command. Mena has 29 walks this year and a WHIP of 1.49, pretty similar to last season in Chicago’s system (1.41).

“When he throws strikes, he’s really good,” Larkin said. “That has been the MO, controlling the strike zone, getting ahead, finishing hitters, limiting walks. … It has just been the consistency of that and making sure he understands his delivery, pitch sequencing. When he lines it all up, it’s really good.”

Bajenaru said Mena has a good heater that sits 92-94 mph and can get up to 96 mph. Mena does not lean on it, though. In his last outing Sunday, Mena threw 22% fastballs and had a pretty even split with his four pitches, per Statcast.

Getting the heater consistent will improve the effectiveness of his other pitches and keep the bases a bit freer.

“The command is coming along. Scuffled early in the year because he does throw so many breaking balls and changeups,” Bajenaru said.

“The command is still a work in progress, but it’s not terrible. It’s a lot of close misses, some arm-side misses here and there. … It’s tough when we’re telling guys to throw 50% breaking balls or higher, the fastball does go on the backburner. So that’s something we as a coaching staff are still harping on in his bullpens.”

The Aces have had Mena throw bullpens with only fastballs so he can fill up the strike zone.

The Diamondbacks have had to rely on starting pitchers with less experience due to injuries in the rotation. Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly and Eduardo Rodriguez are on the injured list.

Mena has been on the outside of that group (Slade Cecconi, Blake Walston, Ryne Nelson and Tommy Henry) and yet to make his MLB debut. But he has shown the tools to spur confidence that he could step in at some point.

Bajenaru said if Mena can get that heater where he wants it to go, “he’s gonna be a dominant pitcher in the future.”

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