Castellanos working on improving his glove and bat

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

It would be nice to sleep in, maybe just another hour before Nick Castellanos begins his semi-daily grind of taking ground balls, lifting weights and hitting the cardiovascular machines, capped by a spin in the batting cage.

But that isn't how his 15-month-old son, Liam, operates. Liam's day begins closer to 7:30 a.m. and to a wake-up visit with dad.

"Fun time," Castellanos said, speaking of that toddler's age when adventure hinges on events led by mom and dad.

But after he and Liam and his wife, Vanessa, have finished breakfast, Castellanos, the Tigers third baseman who is 23 and who just wrapped up his first full season in the big leagues, heads to his offseason job.

By 9 a.m. he is on the baseball field at Archbishop McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches, Florida, near Fort Lauderdale and just down the path from Castellanos' home in Davie. There he takes ground balls swatted by either his father, Jorge, or often by a personal trainer, Rudy Pena.

Ninety minutes later he has a snack and then heads for the gym and another hour and-a-half of labor ahead of lunch. Afterward, he hits the batting cage at a friend's home until he knocks off around 2 p.m. and heads home to Liam and Vanessa.

"No complaints," Castellanos said, speaking of his December routine during a Friday phone conversation. "Pretty much getting back into it, trying to get my body healthy. And focusing on getting better at third base."

It's his and the Tigers' top task as Castellanos girds for 2015. He had the lowest defensive rating of any American League third baseman in 2014, mostly a matter of range linked to a 6-foot-4, 217-pound body that didn't move altogether nimbly.

And so the Tigers decided to help Castellanos with his choreography. They dispatched new strength and conditioning coordinator, Chris Walters, to work with Castellanos on drills geared to improve his first-step move and add more range to the Castellanos tool kit, which includes soft hands and a steady arm.

"A lot of agility drills," Castellanos said of the blueprint crafted by Walters, who replaced Javair Gillett after Gillett moved to a job with the NBA's Houston Rockets. "A lot of things to get me lighter on my feet. A lot of change-of-direction drills. It's been going well."

Castellanos was a dual story during his rookie season. And the Tigers probably got a net gain from his defense-offense clash because of a bat that could be regarded as better than the numbers suggested: .259 average, 11 home runs, 66 RBIs, 31 doubles, and a .700 OPS.

Castellanos tended to work counts and to be a difficult two-strike out. He was particularly deft at hitting pitches to all fields. He also seemed to hit an inordinate number of liners that ended up in an outfielder's glove, which statistics confirmed.

"His numbers, for a rookie in a pennant race, he hit the ball good," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "He had the second-highest line-drive rate in the league."

He also dealt with big-league realities. Pitchers are merciless. Even a rookie with a knack for hitting would be beaten up by the stream and placement of pitches that ran the gamut from 98-mph fastballs to gyrating curves and sliders spiced by balance-busting change-ups.

"Not good, not bad," Castellanos said of his 2014 baptism. "Pretty average. The big leagues definitely made me realize adjustments I need to make if I'm going to become a complete hitter."

One area sure to be polished is on-base percentage (.306 in 2014). Castellanos drew 36 walks in 148 games.

"It was just a big learning process," Castellanos said of his 579 plate appearances. "At the end of the year they (pitchers) started figuring out the book on me. These days so much information goes out.

"Obviously, teams found out I was aggressive. I've been aggressive my whole, short professional career. But I've always had success being that way, even to a point of not taking many strikes, because I'm very confident in my ability to cover the whole plate and hit the ball hard to either side.

"Pitchers are smarter in the big leagues. They're better at their jobs. Now, it's time for me to get better at my job."

It means a lifetime infielder, who had a 11/2-year outfield detour ahead of 2014, will work on his new defensive dance steps while sharpening a hitting approach that could make him a mid-order bonus in manager Brad Ausmus' 2015 lineup.

And if Liam allows him that extra hour of sleep a dad ideally wants at the start of the day, all the better for a third baseman bent on making year two more pleasing for all parties. Henning