April 28, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Nick Castellanos' bat makes him potential left-field option for Tigers

Nick Castellanos is swinging a hot bat in Triple A Toledo, and could find his way to Detroit. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Notes, thoughts, items after the Tigers on Saturday beat the Braves for the second time in 24 hours, 7-4, at Comerica Park:

Nick Castellanos is heating up at Triple A Toledo

Castellanos had hit three home runs in his last four games and was batting .289 in his last 10 as Triple A Toledo settled in for Saturday's game at Altoona.

What this implies is obvious. Should the Tigers' top prospect be warming up in the manner expected he will be an hour's drive from his Comerica Park debut. The Tigers are still unsettled in left field where Andy Dirks has been hurt and has not been hitting. Dirks' fill-ins, Matt Tuiasosopo and Don Kelly, will remain reserves.

It's possible Avisail Garcia, now that he has recovered from a heel injury, could bloom at Toledo and slip past Castellanos if the Tigers need help from the Mud Hens roster. Quintin Berry could also get a call.

But the Tigers know they have a big bat in Castellanos. And if his left-field internship progresses to a point where the Tigers can trust him in the outfield, the Tigers will be tempted to bring their gifted young hitter to the big leagues just as quickly as their roster needs and Castellanos' development merge.

A simple rule of thumb for forecasting hot prospects and the call to Detroit: Pick a date. Then subtract 40 days. It generally happens sooner — a lot sooner — than is initially guessed.

Some necessary perspective on Alex Avila's struggles.

He was the American League starter two years ago in the All-Star Game. Avila has not, at age 26, forgotten how to hit. He has not gotten prematurely old.

But he is having a terrible April. He is batting .169. During Saturday's game he popped up a bunt attempt for a putout that put Avila on a slow, anguished path to the Tigers dugout as boos washed from the stands.

This is a gruesome time for a good player. But I would make the percentage bet here. Avila will hit. He is probably a couple of good, back-to-back at-bats from regaining his groove.

Is he caught in limbo, fighting the need to swing at good pitches and to take the marginal stuff? Yes. And that seems — seems — to be at the heart of this alarming slump.

But the mind in time should clear. The swing is there. And so is the power and RBI potential, which the Tigers desperately need.

In the event life doesn't return to normal, Brayan Pena will work more and more games. Bryan Holaday is a platoon option at Triple A. James McCann, who is a superb defensive catcher, is hitting at Double A and could move into the picture later this season. Ramon Cabrera, who is McCann's catching cohort at Double A Erie, is a hitter more than a defender. His arrival is far down the path.

It's best to wait on Avila as his mind unclogs and his swing and reactions find their old rhythm. Right now, he's fighting it. But after four years in the big leagues it's a reasonable bet his bat will settle and a vital hitter finds his stroke.

Jose Valverde picks up his second save.

I thought Leyland said it best after Saturday's game.

"I just don't want to go crazy and make silly statements," the manager said after Valverde had put away the Braves 1-2-3 in the ninth, striking out the last two batters. "We'll see what happens."

That's the way to handle Valverde's renaissance. With reserve. But don't be fooled.

Leyland can see Valverde is everything the scouts advertised when the Tigers decided last week to bring back their 35-year-old closer who, last autumn, had about as much chance for a comeback as Kwame Kilpatrick.

Fans, of course, have been all over the notion that Valverde must — must — have a split-finger fastball. And while the Tigers agree, the Valverde reunion was arranged by way of his fastball, which in fact is back at the 94-95-mph ceiling, and which has been moving in all the right locations.

The weather was warmer Saturday and baseballs no longer felt like ice cubes. Valverde was able to toss a couple of those precious splitters. One was good. The other made its way to an ashcan.

But the reason Leyland was being so low-key Saturday is because he cannot get painted into a corner. He cannot say what is obvious: Valverde taking care of the ninth inning makes Leyland's bullpen 100 percent more stable.

He can use his other six relievers in optimum fashion rather than spread them across situations in which they aren't always a perfect fit. It reduces risks. It makes the math simpler. It changes the entire dimension of a team's latter innings.

So, while his voice wasn't about to give away his true feelings, be assured a certain 68-year-old manager probably did a postgame jig in his office Saturday. He has, potentially, something he didn't have heading into 2013: a closer. And only a manager knows fully how much that changes a game and a team's capacity for peace of mind.



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