ALL WOUND UP: Ryan Castellani is still prepping for his first game with the Colorado Rockies //photo by tessa marie images
Chris Forbes couldn’t quite understand the response on the other end of the line. Instead of what he thought he’d hear—joyful shouting—he heard the somewhat nervous voice of Ryan Castellani.
It was last June 5, and the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft was in its second round. The Phillies had just made the 47th pick, and Colorado was up. Forbes, then a scout for the team, had called Castellani with the good news that the young righty was joining the Rockies, and he expected the recent high-school graduate to share his enthusiasm.
But Castellani hadn’t heard the good news yet. The draft was being broadcast on a delay. “[Forbes] wondered why I wasn’t screaming,” says Castellani.
The two talked for a few seconds, and then the pick was finally announced where Castellani was.
“Right in the middle of our conversation, I heard Ryan and his family explode on the other end of the line,” Forbes recalls. “I said to myself, ‘OK, he knows now.’”
This past spring, the 19-year-old right-hander began his second season in the organization, taking part in training camp before joining the Class A Boise Hawks of the Northwest League.
Castellani began his baseball journey on the Little League fields of Broomall, where he lived the first 10 years of his life before his family moved to Phoenix, following his fourth-grade year. He was always one of the best at every age group, but it was hard to imagine he would be a second-round MLB draft choice and enjoy a contract that included a $1.1 million signing bonus.
In fact, it’s a little surreal for Castellani, for whom baseball is now an occupation, not just something he does for fun. “I look back at my time playing in Broomall and in high school … And it’s now a job,” he says. “It’s not like I just come home from school and put on my uniform so I can go play.”
The 6-foot-3, 193-pound Castellani throws a fastball that has hit 93 miles per hour and stays low. This is a big deal for the Rockies, who play in the thin air of Denver and need pitchers who can keep the ball down—the better to prevent a barrage of enemy homers.
He spent last year with the Tri-City Dust Devils in Eastern Washington, where he went 1-2 with a 3.65 earned run average while adjusting to pro-baseball life. He also began to learn what makes players advance through the minor-league ranks and what keeps them on the farm for their entire careers. “All of the physical talent is about the same here,” Castellani says. “It’s about consistency and performing, and the fact that you’re going to fail at times.”
When Ryan Castellani was a sophomore at Brophy Prep in Phoenix, he was one of the more highly regarded wide receivers in the state. Although he hadn’t played much football back in Broomall, he’d sprouted to six feet tall by the time he was 15 and was catching just about everything thrown in his direction. College recruiters were starting to come around, and it appeared as if his athletic future was on the gridiron. “Baseball was something of an unknown for me,” he says.
Brophy had a lot of seniors back on the diamond, so it looked like Castellani would be consigned to the junior varsity or the varsity bench, at best. But one of the regular outfielders quit the team just before the season, and Castellani took over right field.
He had a strong season—a little time on the mound and a lot in the field, hitting 10 homers—for a state-championship runner-up. His performance set him up for a big summer. He played in a variety of regional and national tournaments and showcases, including the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., which bring together some of the country’s best underclassmen. Castellani earned a bid as a rising junior, which was somewhat rare, and he demonstrated plenty of talent against elite competition.
That’s when Forbes first saw him. Though Castellani was on a team that had 18 players drafted in the next couple of years, he stood out, playing well in front of about 300 scouts. That success convinced him it was time to focus on just one sport. “That summer made me realize I loved baseball and that was the sport I wanted to pursue,” he says. “Being in Phoenix, baseball is year-round. I could play fall ball and in national tournaments, a lot of which take place here.”
Brophy lost three senior pitchers from its 2012 club, so Castellani moved to the mound as a junior. He began to dominate with a sinking fastball and the competitive mentality he’d demonstrated from his earliest days on the Little League diamond. Back then, other kids simply didn’t want to stand in the box against him.
College recruiters had paid attention to Castellani since after his sophomore year, and he committed to UCLA, which had finished as the national runner-up in 2010 and would win the College World Series in 2013, Castellani’s junior year.
But the bond didn’t hold. Castellani decommitted from UCLA his senior year and decided to attend Arizona State University, which was close to family. “By my senior year, there were five guys from my high school already there, and other guys I knew had committed to go there,” he says. “I wanted to go there. The cool thing about ASU is that I could go there and come home easily.”
Most top players announce where they will go to college—often well before the draft. So Forbes wasn’t worried that Castellani would decline to play professionally if drafted high.
It was easy to evaluate his talent. Castellani had the arm and the makeup to compete. But it was time to learn about the other things. How would he handle life away from home? Could he survive long bus rides to tiny hamlets and still perform?
Forbes considers each prospect “a thousand-piece puzzle.” He’s interested in not just the player but also his life at home and his emotional makeup. “I dug in,” he says. “I brought him to our spring-training complex [in nearby Scottsdale] and learned about his family. He could have gone to Arizona State and been drafted after his junior year, or he could get it started right away. In conversations with him and his family, I learned that he was ready to go.”
On June 5 of last year, the Rockies chose Castellani. About a month later, he was in Pasco, Wash., set to play for Colorado’s short-season Class A club in the Northwest League. Pasco—along with Kennewick and Richland, the other two of the Tri-Cities—sits in southeastern Washington, a long way from anywhere.
Castellani was an 18-year-old on a team comprised mainly of players 21 and older. He lived with a host family and tried to adapt to a farming community, for which baseball was purely entertainment. Some of the old-timers in the crowd delighted in heckling the players. He adjusted to the trappings of minor-league ball—a “clubhouse” that included folding chairs, meals prepared in Crock-Pots, and sauna-like conditions—and got to work.
“We did get to travel to Vancouver, and that was cool,” Castellani says. “And we went to Spokane. That isn’t the same [as Vancouver], but anything was better than Tri-Cities.”
Castellani went 1-2 with a 3.75 ERA in 10 starts, striking out 25 and walking nine. He began the 2015 season with the Boise Hawks of the Northwest League.
The hope is that he’ll make the move to Asheville, N.C., in the South Atlantic League at some point during the season. For now, he’s continuing to adjust to the professional life and training on his days off, so he can deliver when he reaches the mound. He spent most of the off-season at the Rockies’ spring complex, where he could work with coaches and players from every level of the organization.
As with every other player in his spot, Castellani’s goal is rapid advancement toward the big leagues. “In high school, you create a bond with the others on the team,” he says. “You’re playing three years with the same team. Once you get to pro ball, it’s a little bit different. You still have a team aspect, and you make friends. But everybody is trying to get promoted and get to the next level and make it to the majors.”
The road ahead for Castellani is long. But a low 93-mph fastball can take a young man pretty far in Colorado.