- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In a Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse full of potential suspects, Juan Castro had no way of knowing who had punked him by posting a sign on the bulletin board telling him to see the trainers for a "mandatory steroid test." But if Castro has learned nothing else from a major league career that has been a testament to perseverance and maximizing one's ability, he has learned to have a sense of humor.
Especially when it comes to his tendency to hit the occasional home run, something he did again on Wednesday in the Dodgers' 11-5 Cactus League loss to the Kansas City Royals at the Ballpark.
This one, a three-run blast that cleared the leftfield bullpen against one-time Colorado Rockies ace Jeff Francis, didn't count because it came in a spring training game. But Castro has hit 36 homers in 16 big league seasons, a figure that means he probably will never hit one without at least one teammate trying to make a gag out of it.
Castro left the game after taking a called third strike in his second at-bat in the fifth inning, went to the clubhouse, changed clothes and went straight to the weight room. It was only when he returned several minutes later that he saw the sign, and yes, he laughed at it. But for the most part, this spring is serious business for Castro, perhaps more than any other since the Dodgers originally signed him out of Los Mochis, Mexico, some 20 summers ago.
Castro is one of four candidates this spring, along with veteran Aaron Miles and prospects Ivan DeJesus and Justin Sellers, for the second utility-infield spot. Although the Dodgers are up to their chins in outfielders, some of whom can also play on the infield, general manager Ned Colletti now says there will be a second utility infielder on the Opening Day roster.
If he makes the team, Castro will be a member of the Dodgers for the fourth time, although it was with other teams, most notably the Cincinnati Reds, that he has spent the bulk of his career. With his 39th birthday looming this summer, he also is the oldest of the four competitors by more than four years, and it isn't clear whether he would accept a minor league assignment if he were to miss the cut.
It isn't clear, even to Castro, whether he would even keep playing.
"I don't know yet," Castro said. "A lot of things have been going through my mind. I don't want to say I would retire, because I want to play. So I think I'll make a decision when I have to make a decision. For me, I think I can play this year."
Still, there were no major league offers out there this winter. Castro said that of the other two teams he talked to -- he declined to identify them -- one wanted him to go to minor league spring training and the other offered a camp invitation but told him he would begin the season in Triple A. So he accepted a minor league deal with the Dodgers, who promised him a chance to make the club and a $500,000 salary if he does.
Although Castro carries a career batting average of .228 and an on-base percentage of .268, his selling points are enough versatility to play all four infield spots and a well-earned reputation for being a strong clubhouse presence -- as much of a veteran leader as a part-time player can be. He also is a known quantity, having spent almost all of 2009 with the Dodgers, when he hit a respectable .277 in a season in which the club won the National League West.
But as much as he still believes he can play, Castro has begun to think about the next phase of his life. He wants to stay in the game, possibly in a coaching capacity, possibly as an international scout, possibly as a broadcaster -- he and Dodgers Hall of Fame broadcaster Jaime Jarrin have talked about the possibility of Castro joining the team's Spanish-language radio team one day.
Right now, though, Castro's focus is on the field.
"I have always said they'll have to take my jersey away from me," Castro said.
This was supposed to be the spring when longtime Dodgers prospect Scott Elbert finally had a real shot to gain a foothold in the majors, the enigmatic former first-round draft pick having looked like he had turned a corner after he struck out 15 batters and gave up only eight hits in 11 2/3 innings in the Arizona Fall League.
Well, Elbert has been even more unhittable through two Cactus League appearances -- but only because you can't give up hits if you don't throw the ball near the strike zone. Elbert has faced 10 batters, retiring four and walking the other six. He walked four of the five batters he faced Wednesday, one with the bases loaded, and was charged with two earned runs in one-third of an inning.
"He is just trying too hard, I imagine," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "His pens have been good, and his work has been good. ... But you have to throw strikes."
His history notwithstanding -- the shoulder surgery that cost him the 2007 season, his disappearing act at Triple-A Albuquerque last summer, his career 6.84 ERA during his sporadic call-ups to the big leagues -- when Elbert came to camp, a bullpen spot probably was his to lose. That doesn't appear to have changed, but Elbert needs to right himself as quickly as possible.
"I'm sure he is frustrated," said manager Don Mattingly, who also managed Elbert in the AFL last fall. "But it's like everything else in the spring, we're going to take the whole package and see what happens. I have seen a lot of good from him, a ton of good. But that was the fall league and not here. For me, this was just one day that wasn't great. We'll see how he bounces back from it."
Dee Gordon, the Dodgers' highly touted shortstop prospect, didn't play in the game but found a way to put his stamp on it. As Miles, who was playing third, chased a foul pop near the dugout railing, Gordon, who was standing on the top step of the dugout below the field, apparently figured he should get out of the way. But instead, a confused Gordon climbed up onto the warning track and right into Miles' path, where the two collided, causing Miles to miss the catch.
Given that it happened in a Cactus League game, Mattingly was able to laugh it off later -- especially given that it presumably was a lesson learned for Gordon.
"I'm not quite sure what he was doing there," Mattingly said. "I asked him what he was doing, and he said, 'I didn't know where to go.' Well, maybe trying to get off the field should be your first thought. Spring training, isn't it beautiful?"
Dodgers pitcher Ted Lilly, who was scheduled to make his first Cactus League start against the Royals but was scratched because of flu-like symptoms, might pitch at some point in a "B" game the Dodgers have scheduled for Thursday morning against the Chicago White Sox. Jay Gibbons, who had been out with the flu for several days, finally made his Cactus League debut, going 0 for 2 with a fly out and a strikeout as the Dodgers designated hitter. A private memorial service for Dodgers legend Duke Snider, who died on Sunday at the age of 84, will be held on March 12. The Dodgers (2-4) play their first night game of the spring on Thursday against the Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear. Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda will make his second start after pitching two shutout innings against the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.