When the Tigers released Willi Castro in the offseason, a move that blindsided him, the Twins saw him as a good fit on a minor league contract with his defensive versatility.

Castro has given the Twins much more than that.

After showing enough in spring training to secure a spot on the Opening Day roster, he has carved a role as a valuable utility man and top baserunning threat. He started in left field in Thursday's series opener in his first game against his former team, and he hit an RBI single in the second inning.

"He's exceeded my expectations in almost every way," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "We've seen him playing in our division for a while. He's just come in and his instincts out there on the bases — even defensively — were better than what I was even expecting."

The 26-year-old Castro has already swiped a career-high 13 bases, four more than he stole in 125 games in 2021 and 112 games in 2022. He's always shown good speed throughout his career, but he's transformed into one of the Twins' best baserunners.

"Rocco told me if you time him up pretty good, the pitcher, if you have a good jump, you need to take the base," Castro said.

The Tigers sent Castro, 26, into free agency in November when he was eligible for salary arbitration for the first time. After finishing fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2020, he hit .230 with a .637 OPS over his next two seasons.

"I never thought that was going to happen," said Castro, who credited Tigers manager A.J. Hinch for telling him to learn the outfield. "Honestly, I was not feeling good when they told me. For two days, I was down. I didn't want to do anything."

Seven months later, Castro is making the most of his opportunity with a division rival.

"I talked to [Jorge] Polanco before signing the contract about the organization," said Castro, who chose the Twins over a few other minor league contract offers. "He said, 'hey, it's the best. You should come here.' I talked to [Luis] Arraez, he wasn't traded yet, but he said, 'You should come here.' I talked to my agent and said, 'I think I made a decision. I want to go to Minnesota.' I think that was the best option."

Buxton returns, Larnach sent to St. Paul

After an 11-game absence, Byron Buxton was back in the Twins lineup and hitting cleanup Thursday. Sidelined from a pitch to the ribs on June 6, Buxton was activated from the 10-day injured list without a rehab assignment.

Buxton was hitting .220 with 10 homers and 23 RBI before he went on the IL.

Outfielder Trevor Larnach was demoted to St. Paul to make room for Buxton on the roster. Larnach went 4 for 22 (.182 batting average) with a homer and four RBI in eight games after a stint on the IL with pneumonia.

"The biggest part of this conversation with Trevor, for me, is not what Trevor's doing because the truth is when you look up, it's hard to have a major league baseball roster with five guys that are capable of hitting from the left side that all play in the outfield," Baldelli said.

Saints fall to Bats

The St. Paul Saints homered for the 20th consecutive game but lost 6-3 to the host Louisville Bats. The Saints gave up three home runs. Andrew Stevenson homered and tripled for St. Paul, and Chris Williams homered for the third consecutive game.


Polanco, on the 10-day IL with a left hamstring injury for the second time this season, isn't close to returning. "The new hamstring issue is in a different spot," Baldelli said. "I don't think we did anything wrong the first time around. We thought we were being conservative."