MODESTO - Ryan Casteel started the 2013 season as the No. 2 catcher on the Modesto Nuts, and if you pressed a gun to the heads of the decision-makers with the Colorado Rockies, they’d probably say he remains slightly behind Will Swanner on their prospect depth chart.
But despite not getting the playing time of a full-time starter, Casteel emerged as the season’s breakout player in Modesto, so much so that last week he was named the top catcher in the California League.
“I’m thankful it worked out the way it did,” said casteel, a 22-year-old Tennessee native who entered Wednesday’s game hitting .272-22-74. “I didn’t get on the midseason team, unfortunately. I’ve worked hard this season and it’s been a good year.”
He was joined on the California League all-star team by former teammate Dan Winkler, who was named the league’s pitcher of the year after going 12-5 with a 2.97 ERA before being promoted to Double-A Tulsa.
Winkler’s selection gave the Nuts the top pitcher award for the third straight season. Chad Bettis won it in 2011 and Christian Bergman followed in 2012.
Casteel has hit for a solid average at every professional stop, and last year hit .279-2-28 in Asheville.
“I saw him in spring training the first day he showed up and hit hit a couple balls that caught my eye,” said Nuts’ manager Fred Nelson. “He did it again the next day and I went home to look him up in the media guide, saw he had hit two home runs and I couldn’t believe it.
“I asked him what the difference was and he told me about how hard he had worked in the offseason. It really shows. He’s had a tremendous year, especially when you compare this year’s stats to what he did last year. I’ve also seen the gradual improvement in him defensively, and enough people saw that. He can really be proud of what he’s done.”
Still, Casteel had to make the most of his limited opportunities early in the season just to make any kind of impression. With Swanner getting the bulk of the starts and with only two catchers on the roster, Casteel got 36 at-bats in April.
But manager Lenn Sakata pressed the Rockies to send a third catcher, which would enable both Casteel and Swanner to be in the lineup, and Colorado responded by sending Drew Beuerlein to Modesto.
The Rockies will face a similar decision next spring. Will they keep either Casteel or Swanner back in Modesto while the other is promoted to Tulsa to allow both to play full-time?
“Regardless of what happens, Ryan and Swanner will need to get their at-bats and the Rockies will need to figure out how to do that - whether they’re both on the same club or one gets put somewhere else,” Nelson said.
“It does no good to take a talented player like Ryan or Will and not give them the at-bats. Both of these guys fit in as guys who will challenge to move up in the coming years.”
Casteel has not uttered a single word of complaint about his playing time this season, and on Wednesday found his name in the lineup for the 105th time in Modesto’s 135th game.
“It’s been good for both me and Will because we both get the rest we need,” Casteel said. “I think it’s kept us healthy for most of the year and we’re still getting consistent at-bats.”