Detroit — Here’s what’s confounding about teams at the beginning of a rebuilding process.
Players like Nick Castellanos, James McCann and Michael Fulmer — are they foundation pieces, players who will be leaders when the Tigers are ready to contend again? Or, are they future trade chips, players who will be flipped for another batch of prospects when they near their free agent year?
The answer to that likely depends on how fast the club’s starting pitching prospects — Franklin Perez, Beau Burrows, Alex Faedo, Matt Manning, Kyle Funkhouser and Gregory Soto — can develop and get to the big leagues.
If two or three of those pitchers reach their high ceilings and are ready to contribute to a winning team in 2019 or 2020, then maybe the Tigers would be willing to sign Castellanos and McCann to long-term deals before they hit the free agent market, retaining them as cornerstones of the next championship-level team in Detroit.
If not, if the Tigers aren’t close to contending in 2019 or 2020, then it would behoove general manager Al Avila to see what those players might be worth to teams that are.
Certainly, Tigers fans are hyper-sensitive to this phenomenon now, watching Justin Verlander celebrate a division title with the Astros, and seeing Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila jockeying for playoff position with other teams.
We could again be witnessing the blossoming of three players who will ultimately help another franchise win a title. It’s unsettling, but it’s the business.
Castellanos will be the first of the three to hit free agency. He will make $3 million this year and is arbitration eligible this offseason and next. He becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2020.
And he’s making himself a valuable commodity — whether it’s as the centerpiece of the offense in Detroit or as a trade chip.
Invariably, when the topic is Castellanos, the focus around here seems always on what he can’t do — he’s never going to win a Gold Glove for his defense. Which is myopic. The early indications are that he’s not going to be Delmon Young-horrible in the outfield. The Tigers coaches expect him to develop into an average to a possibly decent right fielder.
More importantly, though, is what he can do with the bat. He’s proving himself, still just 25, to be a middle-of-the-order run producer. He’s hitting .270 with 23 home runs and 92 RBIs.
“I agree that he is proving to be a run producer,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “But you have to do it over a number of years. He doesn’t really have a track record but he is improving every year. And he certainly doesn’t shy away from the big at-bats with runners in scoring position.”
Stack up Castellanos’ numbers with other right fielders in baseball:
■ .270 average would rank fifth among American League right fielders and ninth in baseball.
■ 23 home runs would rank fourth in the league, 11th in baseball.
■ 92 RBIs would rank fourth in the league, sixth in baseball (one more than J.D. Martinez).
■ .485 slugging percentage would rank third in the league, eighth in baseball.
■ .805 OPS would rank sixth in the league, 11th in baseball.
■ 10 triples, 33 doubles would rank first and second in the league, first and third in baseball.
Here’s another thing that impresses about Castellanos. He’s gotten hot after the Tigers traded Upton, after Victor Martinez was shut down and while Miguel Cabrera struggles through the worst offensive season of his life.
“I think he enjoys being the guy to drive in the runs,” Ausmus said. “Maybe the defensive move took a little off his plate. Maybe he’s more comfortable out there.”
In the last 19 games, which includes his career-best 15-game hit streak that he took into play Tuesday, Castellanos is hitting .413, with a .423 on-base percentage, a .733 slugging and 1.156 OPS. He’s produced nine doubles, five home runs and 17 RBIs in that stretch.
This is no flash streak, either. Go back 35 games. Since Aug. 9, Castellanos has hit .371 with a 1.024 OPS — 16 runs scored, 13 doubles, three triples, seven home runs and 34 RBIs.
He’s raised his average from .236 to .270.
Impressive stuff, given the team’s slide, the sell-off of players and his position change.
But, in this new climate of Tigers baseball, his production isn’t necessarily being celebrated as something that can help turn the Tigers around. It seems as if it’s being measured publicly in terms of how much value he will have on the trade market in the next couple of years.
Welcome to the rebuild.