Cardinals Add Two Young Latin American Relievers

Now and then, playing in winter ball creates an opportunity for as-of-yet unsigned players to find a professional home.

Such is the case for two young men, one from Colombia, the other from Venezuela.

One is getting his first chance, while the other has found a new home.

Both are being given the opportunity to come to Extended Spring Training in the hope of making a short-season club in 2009.

Luis Orozco (Sincelejo Toros)
Luis Orozco (Sincelejo Toros)

The St. Louis Cardinals have signed 18-year-old Colombian right-handed reliever Luis Orozco to his first professional contract with any MLB organization.

The signing is not all that surprising since Orozco is currently playing winter ball for Sincelejo in Colombia. His manager is Cardinals minor league catching coordinator Dann Bilardello and pitching coach is Tim Leveque, who will be playing the same role with Batavia in 2009. Of course, the two recommended the contract.

This winter, Orozco has pitched in 16 games, 19 1/3 innings for the Toros, all in relief. The good news is that he’s yielded just six earned runs (2.79 ERA) on only five hits and has collected four saves. Unfortunately, Orozco has issued ten walks and served up two long balls. He has 20 strikeouts, just better than one per inning.

Cardinals Director of International Operations Moises Rodriguez offers this report on the 5-foot-11, 160-pounder. “Orozco is competing against players with professional experience, showing lots of mental toughness and is not afraid of any game situation. He is being used as a reliever and occasionally closes games. When his changeup is on, it’s an excellent pitch,” observed Rodriguez.

Despite his youth, because of his success in Colombia, the 2009 plan for Orozco is to bypass the academies entirely and allow him to compete for a short-season job right out of Extended Spring Training.

“Based on what we’ve seen this winter, we envision him playing at a low US minor league level in 2009,” forecasts Rodriguez.

In the Venezuelan winter minor league, the Liga Paralela or Parallel League, the Cardinals sponsored one entire team and supplied additional players to another.

That provided them the opportunity to bring in a number of young men who may or may not have what it takes to become Cardinals. The league allows tryout players, ones that are not signed to a regular contract, to participate.

Eight to ten prospective Cardinals were given look-sees from between one and 13 games in duration during the just-completed Liga Paralela season.

One of them scored a contract, though he does have previous professional experience.

Left-handed pitcher Julio Castellano has come to terms with the Cardinals and has also been invited to travel to the US in the spring for Extended Spring Training.

While that is a bit unusual for a new signing, Rodriguez’ explanation is clear. “Castellano has exhausted all his Venezuelan Summer League years, so he’ll have to make the Gulf Coast League squad to remain under our control.”

Castellano was recently released by Houston after playing in the VSL for the Astros the past four summers. In 2008, he went 2-4 with two saves and a 5.26 ERA in 15 games. In what seems to be a common thread among minor league free agent signings, Castellano has troubles with walks. He issued 20 free passes in his 37 2/3 innings, though he also fanned 24.

In aggregate, as a professional, the 6-foot-2, 170-pounder has a 4.69 ERA in 128.2 career innings over 54 games, 46 in relief. Castellano registered 86 strikeouts and 67 walks.

Rodriguez explains why the 21-year-old native of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela caught the Cardinals’ attention. “Castellano is lefty with a live arm who in our estimation will benefit from our pitching instruction in Jupiter,” he explained.

Castellano career stats:

2005 VSL Astros 0 1 5.03 14 0 0 0 19.2 22 18 11 16 12
2006 VSL Astros 3 0 6.00 17 0 0 0 33 42 26 22 14 26
2007 VSL Astros 3 1 2.82 8 7 0 0 38.1 37 14 12 17 24
2008 VSL Astros 2 4 5.26 15 1 0 2 37.2 44 26 22 20 24
Total 8 6 4.69 54 8 0 2 128.2 145 84 67 67 86