The Washington Times - August 22, 2008, 08:02AM

By JAY LeBLANC
August 25, 2008

One of the most difficult challenges big league organizations face is finding and developing solid catchers. Backstops need to be both tough and skilled and must serve as leaders on the field as well, making the position arguably the most demanding both physically and mentally. That said, it’s not surprising that the three premier catchers available in the 2008 draft flew off the board within the first 10 picks, as the San Francisco Giants took Florida State’s Buster Posey at No. 5, the Florida Marlins followed by taking California high schooler Kyle Skipworth and the Houston Astros selected Stanford’s Jason Castro 10th overall.

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During his first two years at Stanford, the 6’ 3”, 210-pound Castro made the vast majority of his starts at first base, only occasionally seeing time behind the plate. After a disappointing sophomore campaign, Castro spent his summer playing in the wood-bat Cape Cod Baseball League and established himself as an elite prospect by hitting .344 with four home runs and 24 RBI in 39 games, earning All-League honors for the league champion Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. His Cape League success carried over to his junior season at Stanford, as he made a smooth transition to catching full-time and hit .379 with 13 home runs and 69 RBI this spring, earning third-team All-America honors and leading the Cardinal to the College World Series.

As a left-handed hitting catcher with already solid and still-improving skills behind the plate, Castro was a no-brainer for the Astros at the No. 10 spot in this year’s draft. And while many of this year’s top picks dragged out their contract negotiations right up until the Aug. 16 signing deadline, Castro quickly agreed to a deal that included a $2.07 million signing bonus and began his journey to the big leagues with the short-season Class A Tri-City ValleyCats. The 21-year-old got off to a slow start, hitting .250 in 13 July games, but has turned it on in August, hitting .300 in 60 at bats to raise his season’s average to .279. Castro has yet to hit for much power as a pro - he has seven doubles, one home run and eight RBIs thus far - but he’s shown good plate discipline by drawing 17 walks in 30 games, which has helped him compile an impressive .390 on-base percentage. I caught up with Castro last week when the Aberdeen IronBirds hosted his ValleyCats at Ripken Stadium:

Q: You were one of the key players on the Stanford team that advanced to the College World Series earlier this summer. What was that experience like?

A: It was a great experience. It was the first time we’d been there in a few years and it was a great experience to see it through the whole way - watch the season progress and go through the postseason. It was fun.

Q: You and Buster Posey were the top two catchers in college baseball this past season. Do you know him, and if so, what is your relationship like?

A: We actually played on the same summer team last summer, so we’re pretty good friends. I’ve talked to him a little bit throughout the whole draft process and we were both at the Johnny Bench Award ceremony, so it was good to catch up with him and I wish him the best of luck in pro ball whenever he starts.

Q: What was your reaction when you learned you’d been drafted by the Astros? Did you know in advance that they were looking to pick you?

A: Not until the draft was about 10, 15 minutes away, and I was getting on a plane to go to Cal State-Fullerton for the Super Regionals. I really didn’t know the Astros had much interest at the 10th pick until maybe 10 minutes before the draft, and I didn’t find out until after the airplane landed and it had already happened.

Q: Could you talk about making the transition from college to pro ball? What has been the toughest part, and what has come easily?

A: The traveling and playing every day and staying on top of things - it’s been fun. It’s been a great experience making the transition from college. It was definitely a benefit playing in some wood bat leagues during summer ball; that definitely was a help. It’s kind of a slow process, and it’s been a great experience so far.

Q: Could you describe your approach at the plate? Do you try to get into the pitcher’s head, or do you just react to what’s thrown?

A: I just kind of take what’s given to me. I don’t try to mess with the pitcher too much. I kind of take what’s thrown and do the things that I can do and stay within myself and play my game.

Q: At this point in your career, what are your strengths as a catcher, and what are some aspects of playing the position that you feel you need to work on?

A: This past season in college, it was really the first time I caught a full season and this is basically my second season in pro ball catching. It’s been a learning experience and it’s given me time to fine-tune and polish some of the things, like receiving and blocking and throwing. I’m just continuing to work on those things and trying to refine my game every day.

Q: Any plans for fall or winter baseball?

A: I’m actually going to Hawaii to play in the Hawaiian Winter League over the winter.

Q: How soon do you think you’ll be ready to help the Astros?

A: Hopefully soon - I mean, the sooner the better. Any time I get an opportunity like that it will be exciting, and as soon as it comes I think I’ll be ready.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

Be sure to check out our previous National Pastime Prospect Q&A’s: Matt Wieters, Orioles; Ross Detwiler, Nationals; Adrian Alaniz, Nationals; Jake Arrieta, Orioles; Greg Golson, Phillies; John Shelby III, White Sox; Brandon Erbe, Orioles; Chris Marrero, Nationals; Jason Donald, Phillies; John Ely, White Sox; Nolan Reimold, Orioles; Michael Burgess, Nationals; Wes Hodges, Indians; Colton Willems, Nationals; Chris Tillman, Orioles; Dominic Brown, Phillies; Brandon Hicks, Braves; Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals; Nick Weglarz, Indians; Gorkys Hernandez, Braves; Beau Mills, Indians; Stephen King, Nationals; Brad Bergesen, Orioles; Fernando Martinez, Mets; Derrick Robinson, Royals; David Hernandez, Orioles.