January 20, 2014 at 10:58 am

Kurt Mensching

Tigers take gamble with Nick Castellanos, but should give him time to develop

Nick Castellanos had five hits in 18 at-bats for the Tigers as a September call-up last season. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

We canít know how top-prospect Nick Castellanos will do 2014, but we do know this: The Tigers have to give him every chance to succeed, because the alternatives are not pretty.

With Miguel Cabrera moving back across the diamond to first base, Castellanos finds himself handed a starting role in the infield of a team expected to compete for the World Series this season.

That kind of pressure hasnít exactly been a good thing for a player in recent years, so we at least need to acknowledge the possibility that the Tigers could have an issue at the hot corner in the coming year.

It doesnít take long for the mind to drift to Bruce Rondon, the rookie right-hander who was all but handed the role of closer on the 2013 squad. He didnít live up to expectations in spring training, and the next thing you know Jose Valverde is back. We all know how that ended.

Rondon may yet close for the Tigers, but probably not in the near future. The Tigers signed a big-name closer, Joe Nathan, to take care of the job in the near future, anyway.

A few years before that, Scott Sizemore was all the rage. Thatís before he led to rage.

Second baseman Placido Polanco was starting to show wear, and 25-year-old Sizemore was knocking on the door with a .308 average, .389 on-base percentage and .500 slugging averaged splitting his time in the minors with Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo in 2009.

It seemed perfectly reasonable at the time to hand him the reins to second base rather than trying to keep 34-year-old Polanco, who signed with the Phillies for $18 million across three seasons.

Polanco never lived up to his Detroit glory in Philadelphia, but Sizemore neither hit nor fielded the position all that well with the Tigers. With his results in 2011 even worse, Sizemore was traded to the Aís. For years the best Detroit could muster to man the position was a combo of Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn.

Not pretty.

That said, if anyone can do it, Castellanos can.

Each player is his own person. Where Sizemore or Rondon failed to live up to expectations, Castellanos might thrive.

A rookie Austin Jackson stepped into Curtis Grandersonís empty shoes in center field just fine in 2010. Grandersonís first full year in the majors, 2006, went pretty well, too. You just donít -- canít -- know how this is going to turn out ahead of time.

Castellanos has been pegged for great things since his high school years. Heís not some player who seemed to come out of nowhere. Heís the Tigersí top prospect for a reason, a player whose bat has not failed to impress -- that is, until his debut in September. But basing any long-term projections on how a player does in his roster-expansion call-up will get a person into trouble fast.

Known for his swing and expected to hit for average, Castellanos displayed some power as well last year, hitting 18 home runs to go with a .276 average and .343 OBP during his five months with Toledo last year.

Even if he is a below-average fielder at third, heíll still be an upgrade over Cabreraís glove work.

Only time will tell whether Castellanos lives up to the hype. If he does, the Tigers will again have one of the stronger lineups in the league, and theyíll have a set of infielders in place for several years who are much more capable at their jobs than the group from 2013.

If Castellanos struggles out the door, the Tigers -- and their fans -- should give him plenty of time to turn it around, because as of today the alternatives are none too pretty -- Don Kelly and Steve Lombardozzi are not exactly exciting possibilities.

The Tigers canít afford to give up on another hyped rookie too soon.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.

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