Nick Castellanos played left field last season in the minors, but is back to his original position, third base, after the trade of Prince Fielder. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Grand Rapids — Intriguing, how a 21-year-old man who bleeds confidence can steer his bravado into an orange-cone caution lane as he talks about the upcoming season.
“I’m not going to go crazy about a booted ground ball,” Nick Castellanos said Thursday, as the Tigers’ anticipated new third baseman joined teammates and his bosses on the first day of that winter-time publicity ritual, the Tigers Caravan. “I’m just gonna have to get some repetitions.”
Castellanos this spring is expected to shed his label as the Tigers’ long-standing top prospect and gain new status. He will bring his much-celebrated, right-handed bat, and his 6-foot-4, 220-pound physique, to a position formerly patrolled by Miguel Cabrera.
The Tigers are betting heavily on Castellanos. They need their Triple Crown-winner and three-time batting champion, Cabrera, to lock down first base now that Prince Fielder has departed for Texas. And while they are careful about citing glitzy numbers or making any heavy projections, they need — and expect — Castellanos to punish his share of pitchers as he grows into one of the most difficult positions on a big-league baseball field.
“He’s got a chance to be a real good player,” Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager said as the Tigers prepared for dinner at the West Michigan Whitecaps annual banquet at the DeVos Center. “I will be surprised if he’s not a .300 hitter."
Meaning, at some point in Castellanos’ presumed long big-league life, Dombrowski expects Castellanos to be the kind of Evan Longoria-grade batter the Tigers believed they were drafting when he was snatched as their top pick in 2010.
Dombrowski throttles down when he imagines Castellanos’ upcoming rookie season. He is more measured when he projects how a young man who has only recently returned to his old spot, third base, might fare with pressures and adjustments and the speed of the big-league game all meeting him like an oncoming locomotive.
“I think he’ll be all right,” Dombrowski said. “Only on rare, rare occasions do guys come up to the big leagues and tear it up. We’re not expecting Mike Trout.
“But he doesn’t have to carry the club. And we don’t expect a Gold Glove there.”
Castellanos, of course, has bolder thoughts. He mentions the “booted ground ball” not as a forecast but, rather, as an inevitability that will need to be absorbed, all while a southeast Florida native adapts to the big-league galaxy’s endless adventures.
“Actually, I feel better now than I did before,” said Castellanos, who for the past two months has been gorging on a daily diet of ground balls swatted to him, sometimes alongside his new infield coach, Omar Vizquel.
The “before” reference is to news the Tigers delivered in June of 2012. They informed a lifelong infielder and budding big-league third baseman that he would be moving to left field because of a crowd at their corner infield spots.
Cabrera played third. Fielder was at first. Castellanos had nowhere to go.
Fielder’s exit in a trade with the Rangers cleared space at two spots. Cabrera is now shifting to first, and Castellanos has been relieved of his outfield apprenticeship for a happy return to the infield.
Vizquel already has helped make the new move to an old position more comfortable.
“Now, with Omar, there’s so much more attention to detail,” Castellanos said. “A lot with my footwork. My feet are better, so my hands are in a better position.”
Hitting? The Tigers aren’t concerned. Neither, frankly, is Castellanos, all because hitting is what made him a $3.5-million bonus venture for the Tigers, who lured him from a University of Miami scholarship.
Castellanos had only 16 plate appearances during a September debut with the Tigers. But he felt relaxed at the plate, he said Thursday, even when he was batting against Chris Sale, Danny Duffy, or Jose Quintana.
“I saw a lot more off-speed than I thought I would, but I felt very comfortable,” Castellanos said as he and the Tigers assembled for their first formal gathering of 2014. “Especially when I started games, I felt extremely comfortable in a big-league batter’s box.”
The Tigers appreciated his poise and they trust in his talent. A bungled grounder will be part of the picture, they know. Game-winning hits should also be part of a skilled player’s profile.