By Mike Steffanos
Whether I talk Mets with Mets fans or non Mets fans this winter, Luis Castillo's name inevitably comes up in the conversation.
Over the last few seasons it seems like there are always one or two players designated to be the whipping boy for the most disgruntled elements of the fan base. With relievers Aaron Heilman and Scot Schoeneweis moving on this winter, the veteran second baseman would seem to have that distinction to himself.
When Omar Minaya took the team over before the 2005 season, he inherited a second baseman that was being paid far beyond what he was earning. With 2 years and $15 million left on his contract, Matsui was both virtually untradeable and a focal point for the fan's anger.
I remember a game during the 2006 season where Matsui was producing both on the field and at the plate. He had a couple of sparkling defensive plays at second and a big run producing hit that helped break open a close game.
Matsui came to the plate late in the game with the bases empty and the Mets far ahead and struck out. A cascade of boos followed him back to the dugout. Not too much later he was finally, mercifully traded to Colorado. You would have thought Minaya might have learned something from that, but the Castillo signing would seemingly belie that.
Castillo came to the Mets in 2007 and played pretty well. In 50 games he went .296/.371/.372 with 20 RBI and 37 runs scored. Despite the team's September crash, Castillo continued to play hard and produce with a robust .316/.404/.408 batting line and 21 of those runs scored coming down the stretch.
I don't think anyone would have minded if Minaya re-signed him to a reasonable 2-year deal with an option, but Minaya chose to give the gimpy 32-year-old infielder a 4-year, $25 million contract. This was despite the fact that Castillo's value was always based on speed and his legs were all beat up.
As we all know, Castillo was awful last season, never really getting it going and earning Matsui-like rancor from the boo birds.
With doubts about his ability to produce and three years left at $6 million each, Castillo, like Matsui before him, is virtually untradeable. Castillo seems to genuinely welcome a chance to prove to the fans that he's a better player than he showed last year, but he'll really have to get off to a fast start and stay hot to have any hope of turning the fans around.
History teaches us that most players who attract that much negative reaction here will not be able to turn it around, but there are some notable exceptions. The most obvious is Carlos Delgado from last year, but another recent example was Mike Cameron.
Cameron had a rough Mets debut season in 2004. Although generally a top-notch CF, he had the knack for making the occasional glaring error. Always a free-swinger with high strikeout totals, an injured wrist kept Cameron from producing much at the plate for a couple of months.
Cameron picked it up at the end of the year, then moved to RF to accommodate Carlos Beltran in 2005. He was enjoying a productive year until suffering a season-ending injury in a collision with Beltran, and the fan reaction was mostly positive. Of course, Cameron had a pretty likeable personality which undoubtedly helped with the fans, whereas Castillo always looks like he's in a bad mood.
Still, if Castillo produces enough and helps the team win, the fans will come to respect him. Maybe he's tough enough and has enough left in the tank to pull it off. I hope so, because my team benefits and also because I'm a sucker for a beating the odds type of comeback story.
Whatever happens, though, I've got nothing against Castillo. I can't find fault with him for signing that contract, my problem is with Omar for giving it to him. It just didn't make sense when there were far cheaper options available for less of a commitment.
Minaya has made some terrific deals since coming over, but he's had his share of stinkers. Overpaying for Castillo certainly ranks with those. Frankly, if you're a Mets fan who is inclined to boo Castillo this season, you might want to consider directing them towards the General Manager instead.