Henning: Nick Castellanos poised for big offensive jump

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Olivia Regenold, 10, of White Lake, smiles after getting her face painted Saturday at TigerFest at Comerica Park.

Detroit -- They seemed to forget Saturday that it was still January, and not baseball season, as folks dressed as much for a toboggan ride as for Tigers talk, tromped into Comerica Park for a sold-out TigerFest and for a gabfest that didn't include a couple of items worth chewing on.

Guessing at who might make the biggest jump in 2015:

A compelling pick is Nick Castellanos.

He turns 23 on March 4 and, because he's still a kid, it's easy to ignore how good he was as a rookie. Factor in his line drives (uncanny how many became outs), the quality of his at-bats, his skill at hitting with two strikes, and the reality he will only get stronger as he approaches 25, and Castellanos not only didn't get enough credit for 2014, he's probably under-projected for 2015.

A personal guess: Castellanos will bat closer to .280-.285, with at least 18 home runs, and an OPS more in the .800 range.

What the Tigers have is an eventual mid-order hitter who isn't far from that zone now. He could be the most overlooked plus on a team that, if anything, is probably underestimated by those of us who see a team that, right now, looks like it could win 85 or so games.

Nick Castellanos hit .259 in 2014, but don’t be surprised by a jump into the .280-.285 range in 2015.

His glove is not a match for his bat. And that isn't close to being the liability some are screaming about.

No, the squawkers hiss, he's the "worst" third baseman in the big leagues.

Statistically, in terms of range, yes. But there's always a "worst" defender at any position in either league. And that doesn't disqualify a single one of those "worst" defenders. It's a relative statement when big-league fielders have a certain level of competence at a particular position or they would not be stationed there.

This claptrap is particularly rich when you remember that the same crowd harpooning Castellanos is the same bunch that a few seasons ago wanted Brandon Inge shot into space. One of the best glove-men, ever, at third base didn't hit to the critics' satisfaction and, of course, this gets to the core of bleacher-creature rants.

They want an All-Star at every position. They want Adrian Beltre, or his equivalent, at third base. And that brand of critique is why some folks never are satisfied when they believe their team should have property rights to the best people at every perch on a baseball diamond.

Castellanos does just what the Inge carpers always said they wanted. He makes routine plays and hits. At one of the three toughest positions on a diamond, Castellanos gloves mainstream stuff and invariably makes a good throw to first.

You'll see a tad more range this season, a bit more surety at third. You'll see a better hitter. And considering his talent inventory even before he turns 23, you've got a player a team's fortunate to own for the next five seasons.

Justin Verlander is in a standout frame of mind:

I noticed this last season, and it was remarkable for what it said about a man even more than it reflected anything about his pitching.

He was merry. He was relaxed. He was more like the Verlander who zoomed Lamborghini-style into Detroit as a regular in 2006. A hot, sleek, high-powered pitcher with personal zest is what we got back then.

He became more aloof, less tolerant, it seemed, in subsequent years, and that wasn't Verlander, at least the Verlander we had gotten to know.

But last year, it returned, in a way that restored some of his old sparkle, even if he was not twirling as he had during his Cy Young years when every Verlander start turned into an early-innings vigil as you waited to see how deeply into the game he would take his next no-hit quest.

A lot of this contentment might be sourced to two realities in Verlander's life a month before he turns 32.

He is clearly in love with his girlfriend, Kate Upton. You can see it when you see them, and it's an unmistakable and happy sight.

He also is older. He is mellower. And which of us men who remembers what we were like at 27 versus 32 fails to understand the maturity, the perspective, that can come after crossing the year-30 threshold?

This tale of personal triumph is all well and good if one's appearing on Oprah or Dr. Phil. But, of course, people in these parts wonder about Verlander the pitcher. They would appreciate that he pitch more in tune with past performances that made him Detroit's inimitable ace. They would prefer seeing numbers that match his starry salary: $28 million.

This is not a view commonly shared, but I find Verlander to be the least of Detroit's worries in 2015.

I think you'll get 200 innings, 15-18 victories, an ERA of no more than 4.00, and front-line performance from Opening Day into October.

If anything, he'll be better than the above, probably because his sports hernia from 2013 more likely has slipped into the archives and won't restrict him as it seemed to have affected him in 2014.

But either way it's easy to be impressed where Verlander is in 2015. This is a more seasoned man. And nothing good in athletics generally happens if a man's soul and mind aren't in tranquil alignment with his skills.