- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ATLANTA | Kory Casto is here, dressing in a major league clubhouse and taking the field every day. Never mind that a year ago, his path to this point appeared a lot different.

Casto was one of the Washington Nationals‘ top prospects in spring training 2007, a refined hitter with the kind of plate patience the organization covets and the ability to play multiple positions in the field.

He was Washington’s organizational player of the year twice, and the talk was if Casto didn’t make the team right out of spring training, it wouldn’t be long until he was in the majors permanently.

Sixteen months later, Casto is in the Nationals’ lineup but only because the team’s depth has been sapped enough to make him an everyday option. He has become the poster boy for the fragile life of a top prospect, especially one who struggles in the crucible of his first major league call-up, in which the pressure to perform can crush whatever sense of calm that comes from a steady progression through the minor leagues.

But whatever the circumstances of his current stint in the majors, Casto has learned all he can do is play his best without wishing things were different.

“Everybody imagines getting called up, hitting 30 home runs and getting 100 RBI, but most of the time that doesn’t happen,” Casto said. “I think I had 50 at-bats last year. That’s not a true sign of what I think I can do. This year, I’ve tried to build on those things and hopefully become a productive player.”

Casto has started six of the Nationals’ last eight games, hitting .217 with two RBI, three walks and three runs. Not exactly astounding numbers, but both Casto and Nationals vice president of player development Bob Boone feel the 26-year-old’s approach is better than it was last season, when Casto hit .130 during two call-ups, both done before May 15, and spent the rest of the season floundering at Class AAA Columbus.

“He got a little twisted up at spring training [last year]. Fighting for a job, he felt like he had to hit homers,” Boone said. “When he went down, he really struggled trying to find himself. He was never himself all last year. His swing is actually better than it’s ever been right now.”

But if it weren’t for all the Nationals’ injuries, Casto still would be in the minor leagues trying to show how he has improved. He fractured the hamate bone in his right wrist in early April and was hitting .267 at Columbus when his first call-up of the season came after Ryan Zimmerman went on the disabled list June 3.

He was sent down July 4 to make room for Austin Kearns, only to come back July 8 after Elijah Dukes injured his right knee.

“If it weren’t for the injuries, he probably wouldn’t be here,” manager Manny Acta said.

The most recent call-up, however, has given Casto something he hasn’t had in the majors before: time. He could go back to the minors once Lastings Milledge comes off the DL in the next several weeks, but it’s more likely he will stick around until August to give Washington some depth in the outfield.

He has hit safely in four of the six games he started since returning July 8 and is finally able to get both the at-bats he needs to adjust to major league pitching and the comfort of knowing every plate appearance doesn’t have to be a grand statement about his ability.

“When you know it’s a game-by-game basis, you put more pressure on yourself. It’s not like we need to put more pressure on ourselves up here anyway,” Casto said. “When you get more at-bats, I think it’s easier to relax.”

Whether Casto ever will be more than a utility player in the majors is debatable. It could be that his impressive minor league seasons, none of them above Class AA, were the most productive he ever will be. Or he could catch up to big league pitchers in time.

At least now he has a chance to figure it out.

“It’s a big step, and there’s a lot riding on that step,” Boone said. “You can get any job and make what you make in the minor leagues. You can’t get any job and make what you make here.”

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