Godspeed, Luis Castillo

The two-time All-Star is no doubt one of the best pitchers you’ll ever see in a Reds uniform.
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Two weeks ago, Luis Castillo was representing the Reds in fine fashion as a member of the National League All-Star team. Today, Castillo is a member of the Seattle Mariners. So long, Luis. We will miss you in Cincinnati.

I told you last week that it made a lot of sense for the Reds to consider trading Castillo:

“In short, the Reds might have the most valuable asset available right now. It would be malpractice if Cincinnati’s front office didn’t engage in trade discussions with the rest of the league.” 

Cincinnati’s front office did, indeed, engage in trade discussions and general manager Nick Krall acquitted himself quite well, acquiring shortstop Noelvi Marte, shortstop Edwin Arroyo, right-handed pitcher Levi Stoudt, and right-handed pitcher Andrew Moore in a blockbuster deal. All are intriguing players with serious potential, but Marte is the centerpiece. He’s a 20-year-old shortstop who immediately becomes the top prospect in the Reds organization. I’ll be writing many words about him in the coming months and years.

But today, we need to discuss Luis Castillo. Because I’m not quite sure most Reds fans completely understand just how good Castillo has been during his tenure in Cincinnati, his brilliance somewhat obscured by the lousy teams he pitched for. Make no mistake: Castillo is one of the best pitchers you’ll ever see in a Reds uniform.

Let’s play a little game. Here are two pitchers from the last quarter-century of Reds baseball:

Pitcher A: 92-63, 3.21 ERA, 126 ERA+, 7.8 H/9, 7.5 K/9, 2.6 BB/9*

Pitcher B: 44-53, 3.62 ERA, 126 ERA+, 7.6 H/9, 9.8 K/9, 3.3 BB/9

*ERA+ takes a player’s ERA and normalizes it across the entire league. A 126 ERA+ is 26% better than league average. H/9, K/9, and BB/9 are the ratio of hits, strikeouts, and walks per nine innings pitched.

If you are as smart as I think you are, devoted reader, I bet you’ve already guessed that Castillo is one of these pitchers. And you’re right! He’s “Pitcher B” above. “Pitcher A” is Johnny Cueto. Castillo and Cueto are the two best Reds pitchers since Jose Rijo, and among the five best of the last 75 years of Reds baseball, in my opinion.

Castillo has simply been a delight since he burst onto the big league scene back in 2017. In his fourth start for the Reds, the 24-year-old hurler pitched six and two-thirds innings of shutout baseball against Arizona, allowing just three hits while striking out eight and walking just one Diamondback. After the game, shortstop Zack Cozart was dumbstruck. “That reminds me of Cueto,” he said.

Indeed, and he only got better in the years since. In fact, over the last 75 years of Cincinnati Reds baseball, only two starting pitchers have a better ERA+ than Castillo/Cueto. One is Rijo, who is far and away the best Reds pitcher since at least the late 1940s. (The other is Castillo’s former teammate Sonny Gray.) Obviously, ERA+ isn’t the be-all and end-all of statistical measurements, but it’s a good quick-and-dirty look at which pitchers performed well in comparison to the rest of their league.

You can slice and dice the stats any way you like but, for me, there are seven names that deserve to be mentioned among the best in the franchise’s last 75 years. In reverse chronological order: Castillo, Cueto, Rijo, Mario Soto, Jim Maloney, Ewell Blackwell, and Gary Nolan. Maybe you could argue for Tom Seaver or Sonny Gray, but they weren’t here in Cincinnati very long. I want to argue for Bronson Arroyo and Tom Browning and Aaron Harang, but I don’t want to shred whatever credibility I have left (though they were all good pitchers!).

I put Castillo in my top five (with Rijo, Cueto, Maloney, and Blackwell). That’s subjective, I will concede. However, there is simply no way you can make a list of the ten best Reds pitchers of your lifetime without including Luis Castillo. That’s pretty good, right? He’s a surefire Reds Hall of Famer, and it has been a pleasure to watch him ply his trade for the hometown nine.

So many Reds fans seemed excited for the Reds to get a bunch of good prospects in exchange for Castillo, and that’s fine. The Reds certainly did receive an intriguing group of young players in the trade. If that makes you happy, great! Baseball is supposed to be fun, and life is too short to let a dumb sports team make you miserable.

Was I wrong, however, to want the Reds to keep Castillo (and Tyler Mahle, teaming them up with Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, and Graham Ashcraft to form the best rotation in baseball in two years)? I genuinely don’t understand why so many Reds fans are okay with the Reds just trading away great players, year after year after year. It’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome, where fans have been gaslit by ownership for so long that they truly believe the Reds MUST trade all good players. It’s so bizarre.

What is clear is that the Reds have no intention of competing to win baseball games in the next year or two. They’ve already dealt Tyler Naquin to the Mets and Tommy Pham to the Red Sox. Both of those were sensible trades. Mahle is heading for Minnesota, and Brandon Drury is going to San Diego. You can make a good argument that stocking up the farm system with prospects is a good plan, and that the Reds are setting themselves up to be competitive in three or four years.

If that’s the story you’re telling yourself, more power to you. Be honest with yourself, however: in order for the Reds to execute that plan, you have to have some measure of trust that the Castellini ownership group will actually stick to a plan for more than 18 months. We now have 16 years of evidence that would argue against trusting the Castellinis, but if you want to believe, feel free. Personally, I won’t be fooled again…but I hope you’re right. This town is more fun when the Reds are good.

In the meantime, expect to see some really bad baseball as we wait on all these kids to arrive at the big league level. Or maybe you can turn your attention to the Western Reds out in Seattle. Perhaps Castillo and Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez (and former Reds farmhand Taylor Trammell) can finally win that championship we’ve all been hoping to see. They won’t be wearing red, but it might be the next best thing for Reds fans looking to root for something in the near future.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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