Arlington, Texas — Nick Castellanos has made a marked defensive improvement at third base this season. He’s gone from a league-worst, minus-30 in defensive runs saved last year to minus-10 this season.
Still far from a Gold Glove candidate, he’ll be the first to tell you that, but imagine the predicament the Tigers would be in had he not made the gains he’s made this season.
Where do you play Castellanos if not at third?
Nobody is moving Miguel Cabrera off of first base for at least another three years, barring more injuries, and designated hitter Victor Martinez has three years left on his deal. As for moving him to the outfield —they tried that. If he’s too slow and lacks the athleticism to play third, then how is he better-suited to play the outfield?
Given that, Castellanos development this season — defensively and offensively — is among the positive and significant takeaways from the 2015 season. And the way the Tigers coaching staff handled Castellanos — from manager Brad Ausmus, to hitting coaches Wally Joyner and David Newhan, to defensive coordinator Matt Martin — was among the factors that swayed general manager Al Avila’s decision to bring Ausmus back for a third year.
“There’s still growth to come,” Ausmus said of Castellanos. “There’s still plenty of room above his head. He’s made great strides defensively, and he’s become a better offensive player, but I think the important thing for Nick is to not be satisfied with where he’s at, and to continue to grow and get better.”
In fact, Ausmus has encouraged Castellanos to repeat his work regimen from last summer, which included traveling to Dallas for a couple of weeks to work with Martin.
“Do what he did last offseason, and don’t let up when spring training comes around next February,” Ausmus said.
It won’t be a tough sell.
“Just because I’ve gotten better doesn’t mean I take my foot off the gas pedal,” Castellanos said. “I’ve gotten better, but I’m not where I want to be yet. You never really get to where you want to be in this game. You always try to get better.”
Castellanos learned a valuable lesson this season about the perils of taking things for granted. Conversely, he also learned that no matter how dark things get, he has it within himself to battle through.
He was hitting .217 on June 20 and in the worst slump of his life. He’d hit .143 over a 20-game span with 17 strikeouts when Ausmus benched him for three games.
“I just wanted him to stop thinking,” Ausmus said. “Gave him a few days off, told him to get back to not thinking about hitting, stop tinkering with your hands and feet. I asked him if he ever thought about his hands or feet when he was hitting in high school, and he said ‘No.’
“I said, ‘Well, do the same thing.’ ”
Since that time he’s hit .285 with 11 home runs, 44 RBIs and a .827 OPS.
“It’s no secret that the big leagues is extremely difficult,” Castellanos said. “I’m satisfied with how I was able to overcome my first three months of struggling, making adjustments to the league. I’m also happy with how I was able to better myself defensively.
“I still haven’t been able to put it all together in a complete season yet. But it’s just a matter of time. I like where I’m going. I like the strides I have made.”
He’s going to finish the season with career highs in homers (15) and RBIs (72), but his average is still hovering just below .260.
“I don’t believe I am going to be a .250 hitter the rest of my life,” he said. “I know I am better than that. I know I am better than .260 that I hit last year. It’s a process. I don’t have a crystal ball, you know, I don’t know what the future has in store.”
The Tigers, though, feel a whole lot better about it now.