February 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tigers' young players show promise in spring training opener

Lakeland, Fla. — With a neat backhand deep behind third base, Nick Castellanos snared a second-inning ground ball Tuesday and, more important, followed with a clothesline throw to first base.

Drew VerHagen, a 6-foot-6 right-handed starter who could find work in Detroit at some point this season, pitched to six batters who managed not a hit or a walk. Two struck out.

Robbie Ray, the biggest reason Dave Dombrowski made one of the most inflammatory trades of the general manager’s career, had an even better linescore during his two innings of work as Detroit whipped Florida Southern, 12-0, at Joker Marchant Stadium in the first exhibition of the season for the Tigers and manager Brad Ausmus.

Ray, a left-hander, struck out five of the six batters who confronted him. It spoke to the 22-year-old’s potential, which is what spurred Dombrowski to make Ray his top prize in a November trade that shipped Doug Fister to the Nationals and sent many Tigers fans scrambling for torches and pitchforks.

One more member of the Kids Corps also starred: Steven Moya, 22, a 6-6 outfielder the Tigers have been expecting to blossom, slammed a home run and double, driving in four runs.

“Classic left-hand swing,” Ausmus said of Moya, whose development to date has been gashed by injuries that are now in his past.

Moya isn’t anywhere near Detroit quite yet. But the others are, beginning with Castellanos, who is expected to start at third base on Opening Day.

Castellanos played five innings and was 0-for-2. He swatted a deep drive to left-center that was hauled down and later reached base on an error. But it wasn’t offense that concerned the Tigers as Castellanos made his first official big league start at third base.

It was how he would behave at one of the less merciful positions on a baseball field.

He passed. In fact, he aced his first test, inhaling a leadoff ground ball in the first, chasing down a foul pop fly later that inning, and then showing why third base could be his long-term home when he made his deft, third-inning grab and sizzling throw to first.

He also took a throw from catcher James McCann and extinguished Connor Szczerba as Szczerba tried to swipe third.

“He got tested early,” Ausmus said.

“Couple of off-balance plays. He made tough throws on target. He did well.”

Castellanos looked at home Tuesday, settling in at a position he had played regularly until the Tigers moved him to the outfield in deference to their then-corner infielders Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

“It was just about getting comfortable out there,” said Castellanos, a 6-4, 220-pound rookie who next month turns 22. “I felt good with all the plays.

“I know my No. 1 priority is not showing these guys I can hit. It’s getting my reps at third. I need to show them I can play good defense at third.”

Starting pitching depth is another of the Tigers’ spring-camp projects.

VerHagen, a fourth-round pick in 2012 from Vanderbilit, could be migrating toward Comerica Park, especially if the hard, two-seam fastball he showed Tuesday, and a surprisingly good curveball, gain some polish at Toledo.

“His stuff looked good,” Ausmus said. “Good mound presence.”

“Mostly fastballs, a few curves,” VerHagen said afterward in the clubhouse. “Not many change-ups. I didn’t want to speed up their bats.”

Ray followed VerHagen and qualified as the day’s most intriguing pitcher, all because of the ruckus created when Dombrowski flipped Fister for Ray, reliever Ian Krol, and backup infielder/outfielder Steve Lombardozzi.

His fastball, which tends to bore low, was more of a high-altitude pitch Tuesday. But against the Moccasins, Ray was able to sneak it past most hitters, aided mightily by a fine change-up.

Ray’s mission, which probably will be carried out at Toledo, will be to buff his breaking pitch. But he first must decide which it will be: a curveball, or a slider. He is a bit in-between at camp’s outset.

“Me and Jonesy (Jeff Jones, pitching coach) are gonna work on that pitch,” Ray said as he took a clubhouse breather following his two-inning turn. “It could be either or. We’ve just got to figure something out.”

That, of course, is what spring training and the Grapefruit League are all about. Players deal with issues, troubleshoot, refine, develop and, if all goes according to script, they move closer to commanding skills that in February can be on the raw side.

It was all on display Tuesday against college kids. Somewhere beneath that broad canopy called potential, there were enough performances to convince a crew of kids — and their bosses — they’re on the right track.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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Robbie Ray allowed one hit and struck out five in two shutout innings against Florida Southern. The Tigers won the exhibition 12-0. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News