Tigers’ Castellanos strides confidently into his prime

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — So this is what it looks like when a player steps into prime years of his career.

In body and mind, in temperament and deed, Nick Castellanos is a full-grown man — and he turns just 25 years old next month.

“Forget baseball,” manager Brad Ausmus said Tuesday morning. “He’s matured just as a human being. He’s got a son, that’ll make you grow up a little bit. But he’s definitely matured. When he first got here, his attitude was a little like, ‘I’m a big-leaguer. It’s fun to be here.’

“Now it has evolved into, ‘I’ve got a job to do. I’m part of a team and I have to contribute.’ ”

His is a man’s body now, for sure. And the strength has come with it. Balls are jumping off his bat like never before. He’s never seemed as comfortable in his own skin, or in his status on the team. You see him around the clubhouse, there’s a calmness and a true confidence, where before it may have been false bravado.

The phrase that comes to mind is, A man in full.

“Just coming into my fourth full year and sixth big-league camp,” Castellanos said with a shrug Tuesday morning. “There is a sense of belonging and not just pretending.”

He proved he belonged last season, hitting .285, with a .331 on-base percentage and a .496 slugging. He hit 18 home runs with 58 RBIs. But his breakout season was cut short on Aug. 6 when a fastball from Mets pitcher Logan Verrett broke his left hand.

He missed 51 games total last year.

“It would have been great to see what my line would’ve looked like at the end,” he said. “How many home runs I might have gotten with all those games I missed.”

Sitting out all those games, as excruciating as it was helplessly watching his teammates fight for a playoff spot, was revelatory for him. Just like when he fought his way through a dreadful hitting slump in 2015, he grew from the experience.

“Just patience,” he said. “How to deal with being on the DL. Hopefully I’m never on the DL for the rest of my career, but it doesn’t always work out that way. It kind of taught me how to stay with a routine throughout the season.

“It was something I never did before that I had to learn how to do.”

Believe it or not, Tigers baserunning improved in ’16

Just like with the slump, and with his early defensive struggles, what didn’t kill him made him stronger —mentally stronger.

“The one thing Nick has had the whole time, he’s always wanted to be the best, especially from an offensive perspective,” Ausmus said. “Another way he’s grown — as much as he wanted to be a great offensive player, the pride he’s taken in his defense has grown.

“He has gone from wanting to be a great hitter to wanting to be a great player.”

The metrics don’t show it, but anybody who has watched Castellanos play third base the last three years understand how much he has improved that part of his game. But that’s not where he’s going to make his money.

Castellanos, like the Tigers, is built to slug. His early batting practice sessions this spring have left his coaches and teammates wide-eyed and slack-jawed.

“It’s the best I’ve ever felt, best the ball’s come off my bat — ever,” he said.

He’s also had fans running for cover on the back fields at Tigertown. His long shots hit three fans on three straight days.

“I feel terrible about that,” he said. “I need to move to a different field or something.”

The Tigers have longed believed there were 30 home runs and 100-plus RBIs in Castellanos. But, as hitting coach Lloyd McClendon and Ausmus have preached, he can’t get into the mindset of having to chase those numbers.

Just keep making steady and solid contact.

“He hit 18 home runs last year and missed two months,” Ausmus said. “So, yeah, he is capable of hitting 30 home runs. But I don’t want him to go out and try to hit 30 home runs.”

Castellanos said he had no intention of letting statistical expectations alter his approach at the plate.

“I don’t think there is a mindset to hit home runs,” he said. “There’s just a mindset to take good swings at good pitches.”

As for expectations, he said, “I don’t have to do anything. I just go out and play the game hard. Whatever happens, happens. Just trust my talent. Miggy doesn’t feel like he has to drive in 100 and hit 30. He just has to go out and be Miguel Cabrera and the numbers end up where they end up.”

That’s not to say he hasn’t set a goal for this season.

“My goal is to play every game, every day,” he said. “Just put myself in the best possible position to play and help the team win.”