Castellanos hits stride at third after outfield odyssey

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Nick Castellanos has developed into one of the Tigers’ most productive offensive players, and a solid third baseman.

Detroit — There was the midnight email that nearly made him a Miami Hurricanes infielder rather than a Tigers prospect. There was the phone call in 2012 notifying him he would be moving, pronto, to the outfield and bidding farewell to third base.

And then, 17 months later, there was the voice of Dave Dombrowski ordering him to field ground balls. This news bulletin, informing him he was about to become the Tigers’ starting third baseman, arrived in the aftermath of a 1 1/2 year jail sentence in right and left field.

Nick Castellanos specializes in the unconventional. Or, perhaps, Tigers fans, many of whom weren’t on his bandwagon a year ago, have deduced as much as they watch him, at age 24, become one of the steadiest and most dangerous hitters in Detroit’s lineup and evolve into a more handy defender, all of which makes him a decent bet for this year’s American League All-Star team.

“My entire career has been a transition,” Castellanos was saying even before he put together a thunderous game Tuesday against the Marlins, when he tripled, singled, and blasted a line-drive home run into the foliage in straightaway center field at Comerica Park that helped the Tigers to a crazy victory.

“Exhilarated?” he asked, answering a question with a question as he considered a .301 batting average, 14 home runs, and heavy .860 OPS in 2016. “I mean, yeah, kind of reassuring, kind of rewarding. I know how far I’ve come and how difficult it has been for me. There’s some gratification.”

But hardly any satisfaction. There will be little of that for a man who is serious beyond his years, focused to the point of fixation on his hitting, fielding, approach, mind-set, overall baseball study, as he attempts to be the best player his passion and skills allow.

Castellanos is the essence of the still-waters-run-deep person, and player. He is polite but no hail-fellow-well-met. He tends to sit quietly, almost entranced, in front of his locker, generally glued to his cell phone’s texts, information and entertainment.

But he can reverse course artfully, as he has begun to do at a position where he no longer appears as stiff, as immobile, as borderline awkward as he seemed during his first two big-league seasons with the Tigers.

Approach him before or after a game, this poker-faced man who stands 6-foot-4, and the darker persona can give way to a stream of introspection and insight. Often, he’ll slip in a wry line so dryly you wonder if the zinger is intentional or unintentional.

Then it’s back to straight-faced, almost sober, concentration on his phone or on beating the traffic home to Royal Oak, where he lives with his wife, Vanessa, and son Liam, who turns 3 in August.

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“I always felt Nick would hit and that the power would come, also,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said. “The only question about Nick was where, and how well would he play defensively. Could he develop enough baseball instincts/smarts and would he work hard to really be a good player?

“We signed him at a very young age and he arrived in the majors very fast. So that combo (baseball intellect, work ethic) can be dangerous when you’re evaluating a young talent.

“It looks as if he’s convincing those that may have doubted him, even back to his high school days.”

Calculated risk

This has been a saga, for sure. It began in those late hours of June 7, 2010, after the Tigers had, with quiet glee, watched Castellanos tumble from what appeared to be certain top-10 status to the spot where a team minus a first-round pick could tear into an improbable gift.

The Tigers had Castellanos second on their board of 1,000-plus players, one notch behind Bryce Harper, who now clobbers baseballs for the Nationals. But word had gotten out that Castellanos wanted significant money. Teams not interested in writing a $5 million check to an 18-year-old backed off. All except a Tigers team that believed his right-handed bat and left-side infield potential were intriguing.

Before rigid pay ceilings became part of the big-league draft’s realities, teams could take a scofflaw approach to “recommended” signing bonuses. The Tigers were specialists, believing a few million dollars spent on a talented teenager or college star was wiser than spending tens of millions on free agents who might pan out.

It didn’t make the Tigers front office any friends in the chambers of then-commissioner Bud Selig. But the Tigers, essentially, didn’t care when they thought they were practicing more prudent policy.

The Castellanos family had decided they would wait and listen as Nick finished his senior year at Archbishop McCarthy High. He was a shortstop who as a senior hit .542 with 22 stolen bases and helped his team win the state championship, which made him Florida’s Gatorade player of the year.

Baseball, though, wasn’t viewed by the family as a necessity. Nick’s father, Jorge, a Miami native, is a pulmonologist whose medical residency was at Wayne State from 1985-88. It was during that time he met Michelle Beard, a young woman from East Detroit who would become Jorge’s wife and Nick’s mother, and with whom he would sit in the upper right-field deck at Tiger Stadium, watching Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and the rest of the ’80s Tigers dazzle.

But if Nick were to sign in 2010, the family decided it would be at a blue-chip price. Either a team drafting him would pay Trump Tower-grade cash, or Castellanos would opt for his full-ride scholarship at Miami, 30 miles from his home near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Nick Castellanos says his offensive development nearly became an afterthought as he bounced around the field defensively the last few years.

They knew the teams giving chase. The Giants had the most interest. The Phillies were hot. The Astros, Padres, Brewers — all had been scouting Castellanos hard.

Not until the night before the draft had the family heard from Detroit. But talks went well. The Tigers thought there was enough wiggle room within those grand cash demands to make a deal.

Their confidence turned to dust 10 minutes before the Aug. 15 signing deadline when David Chadd, the Tigers assistant general manager who then oversaw the draft, was convinced Castellanos was a goner. The family wanted cash even the Tigers couldn’t justify.

It was 11:50 p.m. At midnight, minus a deal, Castellanos would be destined for a dormitory at Miami.

“Nick walked out the door and he was fuming,” Jorge Castellanos recalled Wednesday, remembering a long night’s machinations. “It was, ‘Dad, I don’t want to go to Miami and swing an aluminum bat. I want to play pro ball. Now.’ ”

Chadd’s phone rang. It was Jorge Castellanos, as well as family “advisor” and the man who is now Nick’s agent, David Meter, who runs SportsMeter, a sports firm in Orlando, Fla. They would agree to a deal for $3.45 million.

Now the drama began.

The Tigers had more like seconds to advise Selig’s office they had beaten the deadline. At 11:58 p.m., “send” was tapped on a laptop and a moment as tense for two parties as a ticking clock in a James Bond movie looked as if it had delivered to Detroit a draft-day godsend.

One problem. The email didn’t reach Selig’s computers until 12:03 a.m. A midnight jam-up, with clubs galore reaching witching-hour deals, had backed up the commissioner’s software.

The Tigers were left to prove that a deal in fact had been finalized and forwarded at 11:58.

Position shift

Once the midnight tango with Selig’s office was wrapped up happily, the hard baseball lessons began for a kid who three months earlier had turned 18.

The Tigers told him fairly immediately he would be moving from shortstop to third base. He was too big, not mobile enough, for short. Castellanos shifted to third and hit .312 in 135 games at Single A West Michigan and led the Midwest League in hits his first full season.

The next spring, he opened at Single A Lakeland ahead of a June promotion to Double A Erie. He played in the Futures Game at Kansas City, where baseball’s best young stars are showcased two days ahead of the All-Star Game, and where he was named MVP for ripping three hits, including a home run.

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And then his baseball life got more complicated.

“I remember I had just gotten back to my little apartment in Erie from the Futures Game,” Castellanos recalled, “and Dave Owen (Tigers director of player development) called me and basically said: ‘Hey, we’re going to send you to the outfield. It’s not because we don’t like you at third. We think this might be a quicker path for you to the big leagues.’ ”

The position switch was all tied to an event six months earlier. Victor Martinez had torn a knee during a winter workout and the Tigers were staring at a 2012 season minus one of the game’s best hitters.

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch said no, the Tigers would add a bat, even if it cost $214 million. On came Prince Fielder, who would play first base, which meant Miguel Cabrera would re-settle at his old position, third base. With a nine-year contract binding Fielder to Detroit, and Cabrera going nowhere as far as Ilitch and the front office were concerned, the Tigers looked at Castellanos.

And decided he had nowhere to play but the outfield.

“I understood it, I’m a pretty mellow guy,” Castellanos said. “I was always going to try and do what they asked me to do. But it was the first time I had ever played the outfield in my life.

“I remember that first game, in Binghamton, how different it was. How far you were from the plate. Now, you’ve got to get reads on balls, you’re coming in, catching line drives, going back for line drives — it was just completely different.”

“I guess, trying to compare it to another sport,” Castellanos said, “it would be like if you were a football lineman on defense and now you’re going to offense. It’s a completely different side of the ball. You’re a defensive lineman and you’re trying to sack the quarterback. And now, on offense, you’re trying to protect."

And the satisfaction and joy that supposedly flows from playing baseball can be different for a player who, in his view, had no choice but to suck it up and play in this new region that never for a moment felt right.

“I don’t thing I ever got comfortable out there,” said Castellanos, who finished the 2012 season in right field, then began playing left field at Triple A Toledo in 2013. “It was only a year and-a-half, but I think it takes more time than that to develop any comfort at a position. To put the glove on and know there aren’t many situations you haven’t seen.

“I don’t think I ever got close to being there.”

It was December 2013. Castellanos was playing 18 holes with some buddies at Shula’s Golf Club in Miami Lakes when he got a call from Dombrowski, then the Tigers general manager.

Fielder had been traded to Texas in a seismic deal that would bring Ian Kinsler to Detroit and allow Cabrera to resume old duties at first base.

Nick Castellanos struggled defensively at third base his first two seasons, but has made strides with an uptick in his defensive numbers this year.

“We want you to start taking ground balls tomorrow,” Castellanos recalls Dombrowski saying. “We want you to be our third baseman next season.”

He was three months from turning 22. He had barely gotten acquainted with third base that first season at West Michigan and, then, for a couple of months at Lakeland and Erie.

Now he was supposed to move seamlessly back to third and play 150 or more games at a position he barely had begun to learn.

The transition was not smooth. Castellanos had limited range as a rookie in 2014, and wasn’t much better in 2015. His arm was, at best, ordinary. His defensive metrics made analytics hounds cringe, probably no more than those who were simply watching him play, so laboriously, at one of the toughest positions on a baseball field.

But he was surviving. At least surviving. And when his youth, and his occasional hitting spurts, suggested better days and seasons were ahead, the Tigers believed more adequate defense would surface, as well.

And it has. More range. Softer hands. He even, creatively, has begun making sharp, one-hop throws to Cabrera when his momentum carries him toward or across the third-base line. It’s a basic tool Tigers outfield coach Gene Roof taught Castellanos during his outfield days. It has become, when helpful, part of his infield repertoire.

“Even a lay baseball fan can see it,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, speaking of Castellanos’ uptick on defense. “He’s getting better.”

Keeping life simple

Among the thousand or so times Castellanos has had to hold his tongue since he signed with the Tigers are when critics attacked his defense. When, of course, they weren’t chafing at his offense — he hit .259 in 2014 and .255 last season.

Castellanos understands he had a job to do, even at 22 and 23. He was in the big leagues. People weren’t interested in his youth. They expected performance.

“I’m not one to complain,” he said, explaining why there were no tantrums, at least publicly, as relocations and critiques mounted. “This organization gave me a lot of money out of high school, and my job was, and is, to show I’ve earned it.

“The more they pay you, the more they expect. And the more they expect, the more you have a responsibility to work hard and meet those expectations.

“But the way I’m playing third base now,” added Castellanos, who concedes he’s a mile or two from a Gold Glove, “this is how I probably would have been playing coming into my rookie season had I not been moved to the outfield.

“There would be some variations, sure, but for the most part, I believe the timetable would have been very similar. I mean, I was pushed through the minor leagues so quickly, and there was so much focus placed on my outfield defense, everything kind of lagged. It was, ‘OK, work on your hitting when you can, but we’ve got to have you take fly balls. Defense is the focus.’ ”

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Tigers fans are seeing, finally, why scouts graded his bat so heavily in 2010. Not even four months after he turned 24, he is one of those high-end hitters who can handle good pitching. And at a point when so many players his age are still working in the bushes, Castellanos is not only hitting, he’s raking with power.

“I’ve always known I was able to hit, and that I’m gonna hit,” he said. “It was just a matter of getting comfortable, of learning the league, learning my swing. I don’t want to sound cocky or arrogant, because I haven’t come close to figuring it all out. I’ve got to be patient. Especially at a young age.”

He’s a different dude, all right. Castellanos says as a kid he rarely watched big-league baseball except during the postseason. He played no sports apart from baseball. Nor is he a huge sports fan. He watches Dolphins games religiously on Sundays. That’s the extent of his must-see sports habits.

It’s playing baseball that drives him. Those trips to Comerica Park, to any big-league field, he says, are adrenalin surges that make all the past grief and grinding worthwhile.

And when he arrives home to Vanessa, his romantic ideal since the two met when they were 15, and to Liam, life’s even more complete.

“We enjoy going out to dinner, having time with our son,” said Castellanos, who keeps his life neatly configured. “I like to go to the movies, just low-key stuff. I’m not that big of a partier or a night owl.

“I try to make life as uncomplicated as possible.”

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning