Castellanos in transition, even with big offensive year

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers' Nick Castellanos is bracing for a move to right field.

Detroit — Think about the season Nick Castellanos is having.

His 20 home runs, 10 triples, 64 runs scored and 80 RBIs are career bests. He’s the first 20 homer-10 triple man the Tigers have had since Curtis Granderson in 2008 and just the 12th all-time.

He has 130 hits, 10 shy of his career best. His strikeout rate is a career-low 22.9 percent and his walk rate (6.6) ties his career best. His hard-hit rate (44.9 percent) is a career high and among the highest in baseball.

“No question he’s taken a step forward,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “His average is lower than it probably should be. In my opinion, he’s going to hit and he’s going to be a run-producer.”

And yet, five full years into his career, he seems still in transition — even if he doesn’t see it that way.

“That is still yet to be seen,” Castellanos said. “I’m still the third baseman of this team, man.”

That is true for now. Organizationally, though, he’s viewed as being in transition. The club is hoping Jeimer Candelario is the team’s third baseman next season and Castellanos will settle in comfortably in right field.

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“He could still play some third base, but it’s going to happen,” Ausmus said of Castellanos moving to the outfield. “But you’ll still see him play third base on occasion.”

Ausmus said he expects Castellanos to make his right field debut during the team’s next road trip – either in Toronto this weekend, or in Cleveland early next week. Ready or not.

“I think he will be fine,” Ausmus said. “(Outfield coach) Dave Clark has been working with him and he thinks he’s going to be fine. In fact, he thinks he could actually be good out there. But there is going to be a learning curve.

“He will make mistakes. That’s why we want to do this now and maybe get some of those mistakes out of the way and let him learn from them.”

Castellanos is in a tough spot and he’s been a good soldier throughout the process.

“I told them I will do anything to help the team,” he said. “I’d rather play outfield than not play at all because they want to see (Candelario) play third.”

Castellanos is a harsh self-critic. He knows he took a step back defensively, especially earlier in the season, and that probably opened the door for the Tigers to seek a defensive upgrade at third base.


But in his heart, he believes he can be and should be a prime building block in the team's rebuild.

“It’s not just me in transition, it’s the whole organization,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know who is going to be here next year. We don’t know. The only thing they asked me was, ‘We have all this going on (trades of corner outfielders J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton), would you be interested in playing right field?’

“I said, yeah, sure. I still want to take reps at third base. I am still a third baseman. But, yeah, I’ll go grab some games in the outfield if it allows me to stay in the lineup.”

Ausmus and the other coaches have tried to convince him that adding the outfield to his resume will benefit him in the long run.

“He’s not the first guy to move to a different position,” Ausmus said. “Ben Zobrist does it on a daily basis. It wouldn’t hurt him to be versatile, anyway. Especially now when it seems like versatility is much more valued than it was 10-15 years ago.”

Castellanos is in his second arbitration year and stands to get a significant raise over the $3 million he made this year. The Tigers will likely evaluate Castellanos’ status after the 2018 season — whether they want to commit to him long-term, or perhaps use him as a trade chip in 2019.

That decision will hinge on how Castellanos performs, and also how far along the rebuild process is by that point. But, this much is certain, a power-hitting, run-producing bat like Castellanos is in short supply in this system.

“I’d like to think I am (a foundation piece),” Castellanos said. “I was drafted here. I have family here. I have a lot of ties to the city of Detroit that I love. But if you are a player and try to get inside the head of a front office guy about the direction of your future — you are going to drive yourself crazy.”

Truth be told, that Castellanos has held it together as well as he has this season is a tribute to his mental stability. So many line drives and 400-foot bombs have landed in defenders’ gloves this season, his .252 batting average is evidence of baseball's cruelty.

But what doesn’t kill you…

“I feel like I learned different things,” he said. “This year was pretty frustrating. The fact that I hit the ball the hardest consistently in my career and haven’t had the same results.  But again, that speaks to how strong someone is mentally to not allow that to affect you.”

That’s where Castellanos thinks he fell off this year. He allowed his defensive struggles early on to affect him at the plate. Then he let all the loud outs get into his head.

“Even with the numbers I have, the consistency of my mental approach has wavered from all those variables,” he said. “Even though I’m having an OK year, I still know there is a lot left.”

With Victor Martinez out for the rest of the season, Castellanos, at 25, is the third on the team seniority list behind Miguel Cabrera and Anibal Sanchez. Which is mind-blowing to think about.

“Nature of the business,” he said.

Wise beyond his years.