March 1, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers prime prospect Nick Castellanos' time isn't now, but will be soon

Port Charlotte, Fla. -- Three times Nick Castellanos strode to the plate Thursday. Three times he and his baseball swing, which looks like something Da Vinci crafted, lashed singles to center or to right field.

As everyone has known since he signed with the Tigers in 2010, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-handed batter with fury in his eyes can hit. He is 6-for-9 in the Grapefruit League and has turned right-center field into his personal hitting expressway.

Fans wonder about a Castellanos timeline. How long until he makes it to Comerica Park? How soon can he begin helping a batting order that could always use another stick? What are the chances he, down the road, will replace Miguel Cabrera as the team's franchise hitter?

Jim Leyland blew away a stream of cigarette smoke. He half-grinned as he sat in the visiting manager's office following the Tigers' 11-2 pasting of the Rays at Charlotte Sports Park.

"He's got a great swing, I'll tell you that," Leyland said.

It was what Leyland didn't say that explains where Castellanos is a week into the Grapefruit League season.

Castellanos is on his way back to the minors, probably Double A, as assignments shape up for 2013. He needs dedicated work in the outfield, which is where he was forced to move last year when Cabrera dropped anchor at Castellanos' natural position, third base.

Sooner than later

Castellanos is three days from turning 21. Don't be fooled by his age. He already has a half-season of grooming at Double A. On teams with less maturity and talent than the Tigers feature, a prospect with Castellanos' skills could probably head north for Opening Day.

That won't happen with Castellanos and the 2013 Tigers. And the first guy to acknowledge it Thursday was Castellanos.

"This is the best team in baseball," Castellanos said, all but snorting at thoughts he might be getting close to Detroit. "All I can do is put my head down and put one foot ahead of the other."

Here's the flip side to Leyland's caution and to a rookie's modesty:

Castellanos will probably play at Comerica Park in 2013 ahead of any forecasts the Tigers are issuing.

Players get hurt, which is already the case in Detroit's camp. Brennan Boesch has one of those ugly intercostal muscle strains and has yet to bat in a Grapefruit League game. Andy Dirks is having similar ills.

The Tigers should have ample bodies on hand when they break camp. But in baseball it's just a matter of time before a hamstring tightens, or a calf is strained, and the phone call is placed.

More candidates

Where matters get doubly interesting for the Tigers is that Castellanos has company.

Avisail Garcia looked like a big leaguer during his two months with the team last season and in Thursday's game made a throw from right field to third base straight from Al Kaline's archives.

Garcia would be a natural guess to begin the season at Triple A Toledo and to have an edge on Castellanos as a 2013 call-up, particularly when defense is considered, as it must be in the big leagues.

There is a third horse in this race: Tyler Collins, 22, a left-handed hitter who has become quite the Tigers dinner-table topic.

Spring camp has a way of making kids look better than they are. But some prospects, in fact, project to be every bit as solid as they appear during their Florida debuts, and the Tigers believe they have in Collins a terrific hitter who is about to join Garcia and Castellanos in the Comerica Park chase.

Cynics get worked up when you mention any kid with talent and with a seeming future in the big leagues. In fact, experience has shown that we more often give prospects — good prospects — a back-seat chance of playing in Detroit when they're all but at the door.

That quickly, they're on the team and weaving their way into a lineup. Be prepared for a surprise or two in 2013. The Tigers are looking at an outfield glut that will almost certainly result in a talented young outfielder being packaged in a trade.

Toss in the inevitable injury, and one of the above kids is headed for Comerica Park. Faster, probably, than even the Tigers would today imagine.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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Nick Castellanos, far right, has no illusions of coming north for Opening Day, but has already impressed the Tigers braintrust. / Robin Buckson/Detroit News