Tigers’ Castellanos making defensive strides at third

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers third baseman Nick Castellanos has spent the past two offseasons working with defensive coordinator Matt Martin.

Lakeland, Fla. — You probably don’t want to hear about the progress third baseman Nick Castellanos has made defensively this spring. You are probably skeptical of reports that he’s tapered his upper body mass, increased his agility and flexibility, that in his third full year he has a firmer grasp of the position’s nuances.

If you are nodding your head in agreement, it’s because you have already branded Castellanos a lost cause defensively.

That seems a harsh and premature indictment of a 24-year-old who had a 21-point improvement in defensive runs saved (minus-30 to minus-9) last season.

Brooks Robinson made 21 errors in his first full season at third base. Nobody is suggesting Castellanos will ever be the accomplished defender Robinson was, but the point is, it’s not an easy position to master. Even the great ones need time, years, to perfect the craft.

To intractably declare Castellanos a stiff after two seasons is myopic. At least allow yourself to appreciate the development process, appreciate the lengths Castellanos has gone through to make the gains that he has.

The last two offseasons he’s put himself through what could be called an agilities boot camp with defensive coordinator Matt Martin in Lubbock, Texas. Days of tedious and arduous drill work. This offseason, he toned his upper body and came in with more strength, more flexibility and less bulk.

Early in training camp, he spent several days a week in the hot sun hurling his body at the ground – working with Martin and Omar Vizquel on diving for balls and getting to his feet quickly.

Monday night in Tampa, Yankees’ Aaron Hicks, a left-handed batter, hit a hard ground ball to Castellanos’ left. He got a good break on the ball, took a couple of steps, made a diving stop, got to his feet and threw out Hicks who has good speed.

Castellanos immediately looked to the dugout (presumably at either Martin or Vizquel) and nodded his head. Fruits of their labor.

“It’s paying off,” Castellanos said. “Omar and Matt have been a great help, sticking with me, getting me all the extra work. I am feeling good over there.”

Castellanos also made a couple of strong plays, both Monday and in the third inning Tuesday before the rains came, on balls he had to charge and make off-balance throws.

He’s been playing in on the skirt of the infield more frequently against speedier hitters.

“I am more comfortable playing in,” he said. “I don’t feel like I am right on top of the hitter anymore.”

He threw out two runners off the charge Monday and forced Blue Jays’ Josh Thole at second base on Tuesday.

“It’s just having a better reaction off the ground,” he said. “The first step is everything at third base. That just comes with experience. You’re never really taught having a first step. It takes time.

“It’s my third year. I know the hitters better. I feel more comfortable where I need to play. It’s coming together.”

But you’re still skeptical. You are saying, “Yeah, but he dropped a pop-up in Clearwater the other day.” Castellanos may never do enough defensively to appease you. That’s your prerogative.

Fact is, his true value is with the bat, and if he hits 20 homers and knocks in close to 100 runs, you will live with his defensive limitations.

As for manager Brad Ausmus, whose opinion matters more than yours — he’s encouraged by what he’s seen defensively from Castellanos this spring. But, like you, he remains skeptical. He wants a bigger sample size.

“He had a nice night defensively and has shown signs of significant progress,” Ausmus said. “But it was just a single night on a humid evening in Tampa, Florida. We want to see it when the lights are brighter and the stage is grander.”

Castellanos is working on it.