Henning: Castellanos absence was Tigers’ worst break

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — You could make a case for Jordan Zimmermann. Losing him for much of 2016 has been tough on a rotation that figured him as its No. 2 horse.

You could point to the weeks Cameron Maybin missed with fractures and dinged fingers and assorted ills. The Tigers offense wasn’t the same without Maybin and his .327 batting average.

But the man whose absence has most bruised the Tigers this season is Nick Castellanos, the young third baseman whose bat was becoming such a weapon in manager Brad Ausmus’ lineup.

He has not played since Aug. 6 when Mets pitcher Logan Verrett caught him on the left hand with a fastball and broke the fifth metacarpal. In lay terms, it was Castellanos’ pinky finger.

Seven weeks the Tigers have been coping minus Castellanos’ bat.

To refresh memories, Castellanos on the day he departed was hitting .286, with 18 home runs, 23 doubles, and four triples. He had a plump .831 OPS.

His defense has not been missed as much, of course, but he was gaining there in his third full season. He turned 24 in March and was making terrific gains on all fronts. He had changed the game-busting potential of Ausmus’ lineup beyond the mid-order artillery offered by Miguel Cabrera, and the Martinezes, Victor and J.D.

This is what Tigers third basemen have contributed since Castellanos was shelved:

They are hitting just north of .250.

They have zero home runs.

They have 13 RBIs.

Close defeats

You could make a case Castellanos has been a loss heavy enough, long enough, to have potentially cost the Tigers a playoff spot.

Consider those numbers the team was left to crunch ahead of Monday’s game against the Indians at Comerica Park.

Four times since Castellanos hit the disabled list the Tigers had lost one-run games.

Thirteen times they had scored one run or been shut out.

There have since been innings galore when anyone who follows this Tigers team could feel the void. A couple of runners aboard. A tight game.

And instead of the guy at bat who can slam a double up the gap or knock a ball over the fence — any fence — the Tigers were praying Casey McGehee, Andrew Romine, or Erick Aybar might keep the coals hot.

It’s been a deep loss, maybe more critical than can be imagined, given a young player’s steady ascent and rising ability to break up a game.

Fateful pitch

The Tigers and Castellanos expect a reunion later this week. He has been getting at-bats during their Florida instructional league and could be ready at least in time for the regular-season series finale this weekend against the Braves at Atlanta.

But as the Tigers tuned for the Indians on Monday, and stared at a gap of 1 1/2 games between them and the Orioles with seven to play for one of the American League wild-card seats, it was impossible not to wonder how different these final days might have been had one pitch not done such damage to a single player and a lineup.

Zimmermann, Maybin, Victor Martinez, Jose Iglesias, James McCann — all have missed chunks of time in 2016.

But the player the Tigers have most missed, the sidelined regular who might have had the most impact on those 40 games he could well have missed by the time he’s back in Ausmus’ lineup, is a young right-handed hitter who had been one of a team’s steadiest, most dangerous hitters.

Until, that is, the fourth inning of a game Aug. 6 at Comerica Park. Fastball in. Third baseman out. With a team’s 2016 playoff potential very much in question. @Lynn_Henning