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Canes Get a Taste of the Big Leagues

Canes Get a Taste of the Big Leagues

by David Villavicencio

It all started with a FaceTime between friends.

Miami star catcher Adrian Del Castillo called his good friend and teammate Anthony Vilar, a fellow two-year starter who has been a key player for the Hurricanes, to see if he could train with him during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But this wasn’t as simple as Vilar saying, “Sure, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The son of former Canes infielder Henry Vilar, Anthony was working with two of his dad’s best friends who happen to work for the Kansas City Royals: catching coach Pedro Grifol and special assignment hitting instructor Mike Tosar.

With that opportunity came the unique experience of training daily with a pair of MLB stars, five-time Gold Glover and six-time All-Star Salvador Perez and 2019 American League home run champ Jorge Soler.

“I would hear from Anthony about his workouts and I’d usually FaceTime him whenever I can to see what he’s up to and that’s when he told me he was working with Salvador Perez,” Del Castillo said. “I asked him if he thought there was an extra spot to work out with them so that maybe I could join or maybe even just watch. I guess he talked to Pedro Grifol and he said I could come work out with them. Ever since that, I trained every single day with him, even Saturdays, and it was really cool.”

So for two months in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, two Canes baseball standouts worked daily with two of the best players in the American League and the future MLB hopefuls are grateful for the experience.

“Catching with Salvy is obviously something different,” Vilar said. “Just seeing the way that he takes every single rep with such game-like intentions, like going 100 percent all the time was obviously amazing. You don’t really get to work with a Gold Glove, All-Star catcher like that every day.

“And then with hitting, just watching their routines and how consistent they are with their swings was amazing,” Vilar continued. “They don’t overreact or overcorrect. If they mess up on a swing, they just go back to the basics and just stay smooth and stick to their approach. It was definitely a great learning experience to be there with them.”

Grifol was impressed with how quickly the talented young Hurricanes adapted to working with Major Leaguers.

“They adjusted really well to these guys. There’s really no doubt in our mind that these guys will one day be pro guys themselves,” Grifol said. “They’re just baseball guys. They’re gym rats, they’re baseball rats and they just love the game. They got there early, they stayed late and they listened. They applied that old adage where have you two ears and one mouth and you listen more than you talk and that’s a recipe for young kids to get better quick when they have talent and these two guys have talent.”

Del Castillo clicked with Grifol and Perez immediately and he loved going through daily drills with one of the best catchers in the world.

“It was awesome. I connected with him really well and really quickly,” Del Castillo said of Perez. “He’s basically a friend now. He’s not just like a guy that you see in the Major Leagues. He doesn’t look down at anybody. He helps anybody who asks and he doesn’t care who it is. He’s there get his work done and to help others and get better. That’s all he’s there for.”

One of the top prospects in the 2021 MLB Draft, Del Castillo relished the chance to learn from a big league coach and his superstar pupil.

“Pedro Grifol, he’s awesome and he’s a really good catching coach and just all-around coach,” Del Castillo said. “He really understands your body type and that everyone has a different body type for catching. Like, with me, I’m not as flexible as most catchers in the big leagues, but he really worked around my flexibility and he adjusted his teaching to that.

“Then working with Salvador Perez, he was awesome,” Del Castillo added. “He’s a multiple-year Gold Glover and All-Star. He’s a beast and just watching him and working with him made me learn a lot from him. He chimed in a couple times and would tell me, ‘This is how I do it, see if it works for you.’ He’s awesome at what he does, but his work ethic is insane. It really shows you how hard these Major League guys work. Every baseball player’s dream is to make the Major Leagues, but that shows you that it’s a lot of work to get there.”

Hard work is nothing new to Del Castillo and Vilar. Both are among the Hurricanes with the best work ethic on the team and they both absolutely love going to the field every day and honing at their craft.

But their daily training over the past few months exposed them to a new level of work ethic after being around Perez, Soler, and several other MLB players like the Miami Marlins’ Lewis Brinson, Garrett Cooper and Elieser Hernandez.

“Before I started working with Salvador Perez and Pedro Grifol, I would work on catching maybe once or twice a week,” Del Castillo said. “But ever since I started working with Salvador, he was telling me that you’ve got to work every single day at catching if you want to be good at it. It’s like hitting. You’ve got to work your eyes in catching just like you work them in hitting. It’s an art back there and you’ve got to work hard at defense and offense.”

Del Castillo got a taste of the big leagues during one of his training sessions, as he stepped behind the plate to catch an MLB pitcher with electric stuff.

“I caught a bullpen from the closer for the Reds, Raisel Iglesias. He’s nasty. It was crazy,” Del Castillo said. “I see Salvador Perez catching him and he makes it look easy. Then I stepped in there and when I started catching him, all of his stuff was insane. I’ve never seen it sink like the way he threw his sinker or a slider that moved like that. I had some trouble at first, but that was the biggest eye opener for me because I’m going to have to catch guys like that one day and that was just a bullpen. Imagine what it’s like in the ninth inning when there is a runner on third base with two outs and he’s going to throw a slider as hard as he can. He was only going like 70 percent in the bullpen, so it was kind of scary. I learned I’ve got to step up my game.”

Working with the pros gave Vilar a new understanding of what it takes to be successful at the highest level and the talented young player made sure to capitalize on the chance to train like a professional.

“For me, this is the hardest I’ve worked ever in regards to baseball,” Vilar said. It was every day waking up at eight in the morning, going to catch from nine to 10, and then hitting from 10 to 11, and then lifting from 12 to one or two, and then coming home and running and doing sprints and all that. Every day has been sort of like what I imagine pro ball is like because we don’t have time to do all of this during the season where you’re waking up and going to class and then you’re working out and then you have practice.

“So, it’s the first time in the last 10 years that I’ve actually had a break from baseball, like actual baseball and playing games,”Vilar continued. “Usually we have our spring season and then you go play summer ball and then there is fall ball and I’ve been doing that for the last 10 years. So this is the first time that we all actually have time to really, really work on individual skill development and I think I’ve taken advantage of that.”

Their mindset and dedication to the daily workouts helped both Vilar and Del Castillo develop tremendously over a short period of time, something Grifol appreciated as a long-time professional coach.

“These guys are such smart baseball guys and they’re obsessed with the game and obsessed with getting better,” Grifol said. “And when you’re obsessed with the game and obsessed with working to get better, things happen quick for you. Both these guys came in every day ready to work and they just kept getting better and better. I’m looking forward to watch these guys play at some point after our season.”

In addition to hitting, fielding grounders, lifting weights and running, Vilar spent the months in advance of the 2020 MLB Draft working on a new skillset. The draft-eligible sophomore, who has been an infielder his entire career, learned the basics of playing catcher from one of the best players at the position in the game today.

“When we had the scout meetings before this season in January, there were like four or five scouts that asked me, ‘Would you consider moving to catcher?’ And I told them, ‘If it comes down to it and that’s what I need to do, if that’s what you guys want me to do as an organization, then, yeah, I’ll do it. Of course,’” Vilar said. “If I get drafted and they say, ‘Be a catcher,’ then I’m a catcher. So, I was just working on it before the draft just in case anything happened. I was just working at just catching just so I wouldn’t have to go in completely new to it. I was just getting the basic steps of catching and learning that so that I wouldn’t have to do that right when I get there. I’d get there and already be comfortable catching and know most of the basics, so I could hopefully make a transition smoother if I had to.”

While Vilar went unselected in the unusually short five-round MLB Draft in June, he continued to work on his skills behind home plate, especially because the have helped him improve when he is taking grounders in the infield.

“Definitely, footwork wise, just working with Pete has helped me be better with my feet and quicker with my feet and that will help me fielding in the infield,” Vilar said. “Receiving, not so much because it’s completely different receiving pitches from catching a ground ball, but I think my footwork has gotten a lot better.”

Considered one of the top hitters in college baseball, Del Castillo has earned that distinction after batting .336 with 24 doubles and 14 homers over his first two years as a Cane. But he learned something new from hitting with Soler and Perez under the watchful eye of Tosar.

“He’s a guy known for his power,” Del Castillo said of Soler. “I asked him and his hitting coach, ‘What do you do to have that much power?’ He’s six-four and he’s obviously bigger than me, but there’s a technique that he uses. They saw me swinging and right away they told me that I was double loading, so I’m taking away power from my swing. They were just telling me to be smoother and in one sequence and drive that ball and to let the ball get deeper. He just chimed in with advice, the same thing as Salvador Perez, and told me little things that he would want to do.

“Jorge Soler led the league in home runs last year and almost hit 50 home runs,” Del Castillo added. “You’ve got to pretty much listen when that guy tells you something about hitting because he’s doing it right and he’s doing it the highest level. You’ve got to take as much as you can from them.”

A very coachable star player, Del Castillo loved learning from his big league training partners. While he was open to their suggestions, he never felt pressured to change what he does.

“Obviously, these guys know what they’re talking about,” Del Castillo said. “But they won’t tell you, ‘Oh, you have to change this.’ They tell you in a way like, ‘This is the way I do it and the way that works for me. If you want to, try it out. If it doesn’t work for you, then don’t do it.’ I think that’s how it should be because things don’t always work for everybody.”

In addition to learning how to do things better on the baseball field, Del Castillo observed how to carry yourself like a Major Leaguer.

“One thing I really liked about Salvador Perez is I don’t even think he called it ‘work.’ He would go every single day and wake up at 8:30 in the morning to be there by nine and he would be super happy to come in and work that day,” Del Castillo said.

“What really stood out to me was that when baseball finally said they were going to start playing again, he was super excited and he woke up and got there earlier and he was just greeting everybody coming in,” Del Castillo continued. “There were obviously other Major League Baseball players there and he had a big smile and was telling everyone, ‘We’re gonna play guys. Let’s go!’ It’s crazy how excited he got just after hearing that. He just really loves to play baseball and it’s contagious when you’re around him.”

As a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner, along with his handful of Gold Gloves and half a dozen All-Star selections, Perez is a great player for Del Castillo to model his game after. While the young Miami standout learned a lot about how to play the game, his greatest lesson from the last few months has nothing to do with playing baseball.

“I know I’ve just got to keep training every day,” Del Castillo said. “At the college level and at the next level, everybody has the talent and the ability. You just have to work harder than the next guy and I saw that from Salvador Perez every day he was there. He didn’t miss a day and he was there every single day, early in the morning. This guy has a bunch of money in the bank and he’s going every single morning to go to train and that’s big. That shows that you need to work hard to get where you want. I’m sure Salvador, back in the day, he had a bunch of talent and everybody told him he was going to make it, but it’s obvious he didn’t really listen to that. He just worked his butt off and went after his goals and he is where he is now because of that.”

With the pros preparing for the start of the MLB season later this week, Vilar and Del Castillo are back on their own but they are still working hard to perfect their craft.

“Now, we have the time to work on everything we need to do to become better players, to focus on the little things that we didn’t have time to before,” Vilar said. “Before all of this happened, it was just like we’d go hit one day or go field another day, but we couldn’t do it all and we couldn’t focus on the little things as much. But, now, we go hit, we go field, we go catch, we work out, we do it all and we can take the time to work on little things because we don’t have to do anything else.”

Just like Del Castillo and Vilar, the Hurricanes have all been working hard ever since the pandemic ended the 2020 college baseball season prematurely and that is exactly why Vilar expects Miami to be a force whenever it takes the field again.

“I think if people are doing what they’re supposed to do, which I’m sure they are like me and Del have been doing, then we’re going to be a really good team when we get back in the fall,” Vilar said. “People have never had the time to take advantage of all the time we have now to train and work on baseball and I know our guys have done it.”

And when the 2021 MLB Draft comes along, Grifol believes both Del Castillo and Vilar have the ability to be impact players for whatever organization selects them.

“With Adrian, there is no doubt he is going to be a front-line guy,” Grifol said. “He works hard and he has the ability to really do some special things behind the plate in this game and obviously at the plate. He can really swing the bat, but I was more impressed with how much he improved defensively. And then with Anthony, he has the ability to play anywhere on the field. He’s obviously a really good infielder and it was not a surprise to me how quickly he became good behind the plate.

“With their talent and how obsessed these guys are with the game and being great, it’s just a good combination for anybody who does anything in this world. If you’re obsessed with being great, you’re smart and you’re talented, you’re going to do great things.”