Kansas City, Mo. — No position on the Tigers roster today packs as much intrigue as left field.
Everywhere else, the Tigers are set. Starters and backups are in place. Pinch-runners and defensive replacements are defined.
The hole is in left, against left-handed pitching, where manager Jim Leyland isn’t sure who will cut it as his right-handed platoon option.
“We’ve got to get something from the right-hand side,” Leyland was saying Friday, in the visiting manager’s office at Kauffman Stadium, where the Tigers are playing the Royals this weekend. “That’s just the facts of life.”
Facts aren’t always fun. Reality for the Tigers comes in the form of numbers, dark numbers.
Andy Dirks has come on of late (batting .415 since Aug. 24), which at least suggests the Tigers’ left-hand hitting option is warming up ahead of playoffs the Tigers are planning on making, even if their lead over the Indians shrunk to 5.5 games following Saturday night’s 4-3 loss to the Royals.
But the right-handed man in left, Matt Tuiasosopo, is batting .190 during the season’s second half, with a horrific OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .510.
Tuiasosopo isn’t dead yet. But he will be if rookie Nick Castellanos proves during September that he can be trusted to swing the bat better than Tuiasosopo (likely) and hold his own on defense (we’ll see).
Start of something special?
The Tigers realize this isn’t an ideal scenario. Rookies tend to play like rookies as they cope with their first weeks in the big leagues. Toss in playoff competition and pressure and youth is generally exposed in all kinds of raw and clumsy ways, unless, of course, the particular kid in question has enough talent to survive.
Avisail Garcia went through baseball adolescence last autumn as a late roster addition and helped the Tigers to a World Series. He had more gifts on defense and better all-around skills than Castellanos. But in his ability to be a plus at crunch time the Tigers learned you can trust the right brand of rookie.
Castellanos has a chance to be 2013’s bonus, beginning this month as the Tigers try to seal their third division title in three years.
In fact, it’s becoming clear that only if he messes up during September will he play his way off a roster the Tigers desperately need him to make.
“Everybody says this kid can hit,” Leyland was saying Friday. “Let’s find out.”
He got his first start Saturday against the Royals and was satisfactory: a hard ground-out to third in his first at-bat; an infield single, his first big-league hit, in his second turn. He has had four at-bats, with the one hit and no strikeouts, since the Tigers called him from Triple A Toledo a week ago and put him on their expanded roster.
They can add him to the playoff list by way of some technical shuffling, moving Castellanos into a spot vacated by a disabled player (Octavio Dotel, Luis Marte). And they will do just that if Castellanos shows anything close to the moxie he has displayed during one week in Detroit.
“He’s a different cat,” Leyland said Saturday, before Castellanos’ inaugural start. “I really like him.”
The words were not meant as an anointing. Castellanos will either show he belongs on the team for another month, if the playoffs arrive, or he’ll get busy fine-tuning all the skills that aren’t quite up to big-league code in 2013.
But in his Saturday remarks — “He’s a different cat” — Leyland’s message was clear.
Castellanos is serious, smart, and as a person and baseball player probably older than 21, which is what he turned last March.
He proved as much when he spoke after Saturday’s game.
“To be honest, I felt real comfortable in the batter’s box today,” he said, mentioning his initial at-bats against a tough left-hander, Danny Duffy. “I took some good swings on his fastball. I fouled off some breaking stuff.
“I felt comfortable. I felt like I belonged, in a sense.”
Not lacking confidence
This is not braggadocio. This, rather, is a level of confidence a baseball player must bring to the grand stage if he has the talent to otherwise stick.
The Tigers aren’t giving up on Tuiasosopo. He brings athleticism and experience Castellanos can’t match. The Tigers appreciate that Tuiasosopo was a big lift during the season’s second half.
But they are dealing with today’s realities as they move closer to the playoffs. Castellanos is here and will get his at-bats against a couple of left-handers in this week’s series against the White Sox in Chicago.
Don’t be surprised if he plays well enough to earn more starts. And even more consideration as a guy who can perhaps fill the one serious position void on an otherwise settled Tigers roster.