Roster numbers are against him, but Willi Castro giving Tigers something to ponder

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Very quietly, Willi Castro is changing the conversation about his place in the Tigers’ future.

His underwhelming 30-game debut late last season — underwhelming both defensively and at the plate — likely fortified and hastened the Tigers’ plans to insert Niko Goodrum as the everyday shortstop for 2020.

Castro went from being positioned to be the Tigers’ opening day shortstop back into organizational limbo — not quite big-league ready and no longer, at age 23, a full-fledged prospect.

Of course, that’s not how he saw it. Not even close.

Willi Castro

“It was a dream come true,” he said of his big-league baptism. “Growing up, I always said in my mind I want to be there one day and that happened. With the work I put in with my dad back in the DR (Dominican Republic), I appreciate it a lot.

“My goal is still to be with the big-league club, trying to be there and helping the team win and be an everyday player. That is my goal.”

It was clear in Lakeland back in February that Castro was not the same befuddled player he was in September. At the urging of infield coach Ramon Santiago, he began daily drill work using a flat, pancake-looking glove, which helped correct a flaw in his fielding mechanics.

As manager Ron Gardenhire explained, Castro had developed a habit of sliding through ground balls and fielding them to the side, which increased the margin for error. With a pancake glove, you can’t do that and catch the ball. It forces you to square your body up to the ball.

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“It’s the first thing I grab for my early work every day,” Castro said of the flat glove. “I take 10 to 15 ground balls with it. It’s getting me better. Last year wasn’t a good year for me at shortstop. I was disappointed because I know my ability.

“But I know I was going to get better.”

He has. After making 22 errors at Toledo last year and four more in 30 games with the Tigers — posting a minus-3 defensive runs saved — he’s fielded his position flawlessly both in Lakeland and during this camp, where he has started all nine intrasquad games.

“He looks like a major league shortstop now,” Tigers Hall-of-Famer Alan Trammell said on the broadcast Friday night.

Castro’s been getting plenty of big-league tutoring. Besides Santiago and Trammell, he spent the three-month shutdown in Tampa working out with his brother-in-law, Mets shortstop Amed Rosario. And throughout this camp, he’s been at the hip of veteran Jordy Mercer.

“It’s been a great opportunity to see the older guys, like Jordy,” Castro said. “He’s the one that always keeps me going, telling me stuff I don’t know. He’s always teaching me. I learn from him every day.”

Castro, who hit .230 in 100 at-bats last September, has been hitting the ball consistently well, too. After hitting .308 in Grapefruit League play, he’s 8 for 25 with four doubles in this camp.

“I just think the routine I’ve been through, keeping up with that every day,” Castro said when asked what’s clicked for him. “Just working that routine and focusing on little things I need to get better at. I always try to get one percent better every time I come onto the field.”  

He’s done that. Now it’s a matter of seeing how the roster numbers shake out, which is something he cannot control or impact with his work ethic.

Besides Goodrum, the Tigers can use both Mercer and Harold Castro at shortstop. Castro also has a minor-league option left, which gives the Tigers some flexibility. Third baseman Dawel Lugo, who has all but lost the third base battle to Jeimer Candelario, is out of options and the club may not want to risk exposing him to waivers.

“If we keep Lugo on the ball club, which is probably the higher probability, it would be as another bat off the bench," Gardenhire said. "Though that’s yet to be decided...We have some decisions to make here in the next couple of days, just to see how we can keep people playing and not just sitting.”

Even if he starts the season on the taxi squad and working out in Toledo, Castro has worked himself into a better position organizationally than he was when the season ended last September.

“He’s improved in a lot of ways,” Gardenhire said. “He stays through the ball now, not sliding off it. His decisions are good, he's paying attention to the analytics as far as moving (positioning), he's keeping his head up — he’s doing so much better. We think a lot of him.

“He’s in line here. If anything happens, we're not afraid to put him out there.”

Twitter: @cmccosky