- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2009

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. | There was a time, not long ago, when Kory Casto was considered the top prospect in the Washington Nationals‘ farm system.

Named the organization’s position player of the year in 2005 and 2006, Casto was touted as a future everyday starter in the major leagues, a player who could hit .280 with 20 home runs and maybe 40 doubles.

Casto bought into the hype and put pressure on himself to live up to it. That, as he now realizes, was a mistake.

“Oh yeah, I used to put pressure on myself. I definitely did,” he said. “And when I got up to the majors, instead of doing what I did, I tried to do more. Now, I’ve kind of accepted who I am.”

Who Casto isn’t: a 20-homer, 40-double, .280-hitting, everyday major leaguer. Who he is: a utilityman who can play any of the corner infield and outfield positions and, in his mind, have quality at-bats off the bench.

It remains to be seen whether the Nationals believe in Casto as much as he believes in himself. With a final cutdown to the 25-man Opening Day roster looming, Casto is on the bubble.

There is likely one more spot on the Washington bench that needs to be filled before the club heads north, and there are plenty of candidates: Casto, Alberto Gonzalez, Alex Cintron, Jose Castillo, Dmitri Young, Wily Mo Pena.

In Casto’s case, the biggest factor might be his contract status. Since he has been on the 40-man roster for three years, he is out of options and can’t be sent to Class AAA Syracuse without first passing through waivers.

That is a blessing and a curse for the 27-year-old. If the organization still believes in him, he would seem a shoo-in to make the roster. If not, he’s a candidate to be cut loose altogether.

“It’s going to be an interesting decision,” manager Manny Acta said Friday night before the Nationals faced the New York Mets here.

Casto is all too aware of his precarious position. But unlike past seasons, when he agonized over his fate, he has accepted that it’s out of his control.

“When you think about it, worrying isn’t going to make anything better,” he said. “So I just kind of put it off. When that day comes, it’s either going to be a good thing or it’s going to be not making the team. Whatever happens after that, if I get picked up by another team or go to Triple-A, whatever it is I’ll make the best of it.”

Casto was the last man cut before Opening Day in 2007, not learning of his fate until he was at RFK Stadium for the final exhibition game. Two days later, he was called back up.

Thus began a back-and-forth odyssey between Washington and Columbus, Ohio, a seven-hour drive Casto has made far too many times. Perpetually the 26th man on a 25-man roster, he would be the first guy promoted when someone on the big league roster got hurt, then returned to Class AAA after only modest success in Washington.

Casto’s career numbers - a .194 average, two homers, 19 RBI and a .276 slugging percentage in 82 games - aren’t much to look at. They pale in comparison to his minor league numbers - a .272 average, 79 homers, 367 RBI and a .452 slugging percentage in 617 games.

It hasn’t helped that playing time has been hard to come by. Casto’s best position is third base, but he’s not going to get many starts there with Ryan Zimmerman on the roster. So the Nationals asked him to learn to play the outfield and first base, hoping he could find his calling as a utilityman.

“We’ve seen him over the last two years up here on and off,” Acta said. “And we’ve seen him this year in spring training. He’s played third, first, done good defensively. He still hasn’t hit the way we’ve been expecting him to hit up here.”

This year, no one in camp has played more games - Friday night was Casto’s 20th out of 26 Grapefruit League contests - but he hasn’t shown much that the club hasn’t already seen the past two years.

That leaves Casto in an unenviable position. This time next week, he could be on the team charter heading north. He could be headed back to Class AAA. Or he could be headed to another organization altogether.

“Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen,” he said. “It’s nothing I can control. If it’s something where I don’t make the team, then whatever situation comes out of that, I’m just going to keep on rolling.”

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