Rockies sending Casteel ‘Down Under’ for winter ball
by JOE CANNON Banner Assistant Sports Editor
Oct 20, 2013 | 835 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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After spending the last several autumns in the Southwest, Ryan Casteel isheaded that direction again, only this time around he’ll bypass the Arizona Fall League and head “Down Under” to play winter ball in the Australian Baseball League.

“It’s a great opportunity, not only to improve my game, but to experience a part of the world I never thought I would get the chance to,” remarked the former Bradley Central and Cleveland State baseball standout.

Casteel and former Baylor all-stater Tyler Massey have been chosen as the first “American imports” from the Colorado Rockies organization to participate in the fairly new endeavor by Major League Baseball.

Major League Baseball has supported the new Australian Baseball League along with the Australian Baseball Federation since 2010. The ABL reflects the continuation of a long-term partnership between MLB and the ABF to significantly grow the sport in Australia.

Casteel and Massey, who have been teammates for the past three seasons at Tri-Cities, Wash., Asheville, N.C., and this past summer in Modesto, Calif., will be playing for the Melbourne Aces in the six-team ABL.

Named the California League Catcher of the Year, Casteel wrapped up a strong season by leading the Advanced-A team in slugging percentage (.523), OPS (.875) and tied a teammate with 22 home runs.

The 17th round pick in the 2010 MLB draft was also second on the Nuts with 76 RBIs, 50 walks, 215 total bases and a .523 on base percentage. He finished with a .270 batting average, 30 doubles, four triples, 111 hits, 67 runs scored and committed just one error in 108 games. Casteel has played in 278 games in four seasons as a professional player.

Massey also helped lead Modesto to the playoffs with a .267 BA, .332 OBP, 19 doubles, nine triples and 11 home runs in 118 hits. The outfielder scored 63 times, drove in 53 runs and was successful on 10-of-11 stolen base attempts. A 14th round pick in the 2008 Amateur Draft, Massey has played in 537 games in six professional seasons.

Aces hitting coach Phil Allen, a scout for the Rockies, is thrilled the pair will be joining him down under.

"These players are solid, professional players who will shore up some areas for the team. Tyler hits well and plays good defense, while Ryan is an absolute power hitter with a great eye at the plate. This combination of skills is something we missed last season," he said in a recent release by the team.

General manager Winston Knox added, “It's extremely exciting to have the Rockies on board with us. The fact that the organization is able to send us players of this caliber will make a huge difference to our lineup. It will bring excitement to the fans and make us stronger at the plate and in the field."

“The Rockies are sponsoring us, paying our salaries and providing us a place to live,” explained Casteel. “My wife is going to be able to go with me. We are going to be living five blocks from the beach. We’re really excited about it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Located on Australia’s southeast coast, Melbourne has been voted the “World’s Most Liveable City” for three straight years in ratings published by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

It is the capital of the state of Victoria and the second largest city on the continent, with a population of more than 4.2 million people, making it larger than Los Angeles by nearly a half million people.

Along with Melbourne, the ABL has teams in Sydney (Blue Sox), Brisbane (Bandits), Canberra (Cavalry), Perth (Heat) and Adelaide (Bite) with the 40-game season starting on Halloween and running through late January. The league’s three-team playoffs run from Jan. 30 through Feb. 9. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, the Casteels will get to experience the Australian spring and summer seasons.

“Because of the distance between cities, we will fly to all our away series,” Casteel explained. “We will play mainly on Friday, Saturday and Sundays, with a few Thursday games. We’ll don’t play games on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays, but we’ll have practice and workouts then.

“While there are several native Australian players, there are also some minor and major leaguers, as well as some from professional leagues in Japan and Korea,” he related.

According to the ABL website, “Australia has produced 31 major league players all-time, including 28 who were born in the country, led by 19th century infielder Joe Quinn, whose major league career dates back to 1884.

Following Quinn with the most career major league games among Australian-born players are former Milwaukee Brewers catcher David Nilsson, a 1999 National League All-Star; former longtime infielder Craig Shipley, currently an assistant to Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers who, as a member of the Dodgers in 1986, became the first Australian player to play in the majors since Quinn; and former lefty reliever Graeme Lloyd, a two-time World Series champion with the New York Yankees.

Current players include 10-year reliever Grant Balfour, who is currently the closer for the Oakland Athletics; and Dodgers reliever Peter Moylan, who played seven years with the Atlanta Braves.

Balfour and fellow pitcher Liam Hendriks of the Minnesota Twins were the two Australian-born players on 2013 Opening Day rosters. In addition to the 34-year-old Moylan, Melbourne native Travis Blackley, a teammate of Balfour with the American League West Champion A's in 2012, now pitches for the Houston Astros. Australia currently has 60 players under contract with major league organizations.”

The Down Under connection has encouraged MLB to open next season with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks squaring off in Sydney. The 2014 Opening Series featuring the National League West rivals will be Major League Baseball's first regular season games to be staged in Australia. MLB has previously opened seasons in Monterrey, Mexico (1999); Tokyo, Japan (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012); and San Juan, Puerto Rico (2001).

Baseball's history in Australia goes back more than 150 years. The 2014 Opening Series will mark the 100th anniversary of exhibition games played by the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants before 10,000 fans on Jan. 3, 1914.

Major League Baseball's history at the Sydney Cricket Ground dates to December 1888, when Spalding's World Tourists played a series of exhibition games, including a Dec. 15, 1888, contest that attracted 5,500 spectators.

The Sydney Cricket Ground will be fully renovated to a baseball configuration and major league standards in order to host MLB's 2014 Opening Series.

Excited about the opportunity to showcase and hone his skills in “winter ball,” Casteel is pleased with the way his career is progressing.

“I feel great. I think I opened some eyes and put myself on the map with the season I just had. I improved hitting-wise and felt the best I’ve felt at the plate,” he remarked.

“I’m just 22. The average age to break into the majors is 25, so I feel like I’m right on track,” added Casteel who has progressed yearly from Rookie Ball, to Low-A, Class A and Advanced A teams. “You have to learn patience. The mental aspect of the game is a huge separator. You have to learn how to handle failure and come back strong from it.

“The mental grind is tough on a lot of players. One thing that has helped me is being with the same group of guys for the last three years and being able to have the success we’ve had as a team.”

After playing in the ABL, Casteel will get to come home for a couple of weeks before reporting for the Rockies’ spring training in February.