Who’s ready to take the “leap?” INF Daniel Castro

The 2015 season for infielder Daniel Castro started and ended with a bang. The 23-year-old opened the year by bashing Southern League pitching to the tune of a .389 average in 23 games for Double-A Mississippi, and ended it with his third trip to Atlanta and a 3-for-5 game with his second career MLB home run on October 2 against St. Louis.

In between the two highs, Castro reached the top two levels of the Braves’ organization for the first time in his professional career, also spending an 89-game stint with Triple-A Gwinnett for the better part of the summer.

Castro started hot, reaching base safely in 20 of 23 games for the M-Braves. He posted a 13-game hit streak from April 9-25 – the 12th-longest streak in the Southern League all year long – and hammered left-handed pitching (11-for-18) before being promoted to the G-Braves on May 8.

Upon his arrival in Gwinnett, Castro batted .276 (34-for-123) in 35 games, leading into his Major League debut on June 17 vs. Boston. In that game, he picked up a pinch-hit single off of Junichi Tazawa, helping kick-start a two-run rally that pushed the Braves past the Red Sox for a 5-2 victory.

Following the one-game cameo, Castro returned to Gwinnett and hit .241 (26-for-108) over 32 games between June 19-July 24. But as the season wore on, he played his best baseball, hitting .301 (31-for-103) with 15 RBIs and 12 runs scored in 29 games in August between Gwinnett and Atlanta.

Castro took New York’s Steven Matz deep for his first MLB home run on September 11 at Turner Field, a high point of his extended look in the Braves’ lineup over the season’s final five weeks. He hit just .212 with only two other extra-base hits (one being the October 2 homer off Jaime Garcia) in that span, but for someone who had only played in 147 games in the United States prior to 2015, his 33 games in the big leagues marked a significant career advancement.

The Mexico native bolstered his Major League potential by displaying defensive versatility, flashing his glove at second base, shortstop and third base with the Braves.

Castro has played the majority of his defense at shortstop since coming to the United States in August 2013, with 240 of his 279 games played coming at the position (86 percent). But while playing second base over each of the three levels last year, he did not commit an error in 14 games (12 with Atlanta) and 79 total chances. He was also perfect in 35 chances over 10 games at third base for the Braves.

After the offseason trade of former Gold Glove winner Andrelton Simmons to the Los Angeles Angels, no longer does the best defensive player in baseball reside at the shortstop position in Atlanta’s infield. The November 12 deal potentially nudged the door open for Castro if Erick Aybar – acquired along with pitching prospects Sean Newcomband Chris Ellis – does not improve upon career-worst numbers from 2015.

Aybar is also in the final year of his current contract, and two potential long-term shortstop candidates for the Braves, last year’s No. 1 overall draft choice Dansby Swanson and 19-year-old Ozzie Albies, may be more than a year away from reaching the big leagues.

With uncertainty on the left side of Atlanta’s infield leading into 2016, Castro has an opportunity to seize one of those roles, battling for playing time with Adonis Garcia,Kelly Johnson, Hector Olivera and the aforementioned Aybar. Johnson has played plenty of outfield in his career, and Olivera is making a transition to left field, further strengthening Castro’s case as a utility infielder for the Braves this year.

A “leap” for Castro in 2016 means a much longer look in Atlanta, improvement at the plate and a continued steady glove at multiple infield positions.