Rejuvenated Castellanos could put shine on trying summer
Grand Rapids — Nicholas Castellanos says a man who feels good looks even better, which could mean, based upon his natty appearance Wednesday evening, that a Tigers right fielder is in line for a GQ cover in 2018.
Or, perhaps, if his bat continues to smolder as he turns 26, maybe something more in line with an All-Star Game ticket is coming his way.
Castellanos sauntered into an interview room at Fredrik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, where he was joining various Tigers teammates for the West Michigan Whitecaps Banquet, a many-hundred-guest event that annually triggers new baseball season for the Tigers’ Single A farm-partner.
Awaiting him was something more than a dinner entrée. Castellanos was handed Wednesday a plaque as one of the latest entrants into the West Michigan Whitecaps Hall of Fame, a bit of posterity earned because of Castellanos’ work in 2011.
He had shorn his hair and trimmed his beard to induction standards and was otherwise looking the picture of enshrinement in a blue blazer, gray slacks, red print tie, and multi-colored pocket square, heavy in scarlet.
Where was the lampblack under each eye and that cream-colored jersey emblazoned by a blue Olde English D, his typical Tigers wardrobe?
Castellanos laughed. Now, in January, a few weeks before spring camp is christened at Lakeland, Fla., humor is easy. Spirits are lofty.
“I’m excited,” said Castellanos, who offered one reason for feeling upbeat.
“It’s kind of like we have a new regime — whatever the word is — in the clubhouse.”
He was referring to new manager Ron Gardenhire. The two had a get-acquainted call a few weeks ago.
“He was extremely personable, and extremely nice,” Castellanos said. “And he had taken the time to learn all about me. We laughed on the phone, a lot. He kind of like that jolly old uncle you only see over the holidays.”
How jolly Gardenhire remains in 2018 will depend, of course, on how his new team fares during what is expected to be a season in which playoffs aren’t exactly forecasted.
Castellanos, though, could make days and nights a bit brighter because of a bat that last season drove in 101 runs. He batted .278, with 26 home runs, and finished with an .811 OPS — .882 in the second half.
All of this stacked up as Castellanos moved positions, and not necessarily because he preferred it. His days at third base ended as the Tigers pushed for an upgrade, defensively, which sent him to right field and made newcomer Jeimer Candelario the man at third.
The surprise: Castellanos rather enjoyed it. The greater surprise: He played comfortably, and adequately, during his one-month reunion with an outfield he had not played since his days in the minors.
He heard enough from those who were obliged to be straight with him to understand it had worked.
“Clarkie said I had very good actions out there,” Castellanos recalled, speaking of Tigers third-base coach Dave Clark, who also helps school the team’s outfielders.
“And the other guys said I was doing fine. I hit all my cuts (cutoff throws), and my throws to second base were right on the money.”
He knows he botched a couple of plays: one against Oakland on a night when the field was wet and Castellanos was being careful and Matt Joyce took an extra base. And another on a night in Cleveland when he and JaCoby Jones both tried to snare a ball in the right-center alley and the crowd noise drowned out each man’s call.
Otherwise, no bad marks. He will never have plus-range in right. But neither did the man he replaced, J.D. Martinez, who, like Castellanos, will always be in a lineup for a separate reason: a mid-order bat.
How long Castellanos remains in right, or on the Tigers roster, will be one of 2018’s storylines.
He is 21 months from free agency. The Tigers are stockpiling as many kid talents as possible with hopes of erecting a tall, deep roster. The wunderkinds might then arrive in Detroit within a year or two of each other and build, eventually, a team that could reintroduce Motown to baseball’s postseason.
Castellanos understands that if he hits as anticipated during the upcoming season’s first half, he might be the brand of bat that fetches a couple of tempting trade pieces.
It’s a reasonable bet. The Tigers won’t be inclined to write a whopping extension check to Castellanos and, in fact, have declined to do so, at least seriously. The Tigers want to get younger. And, perhaps, more defensively facile in right field.
Castellanos says he’ll only work to stay healthy, play robustly, and hit the ball even harder than he hit it in 2017.
But he doesn’t want Tigers fans to misunderstand.
“If I were to draw it up perfectly,” he said, “my career would be long-term here and we’d bring a World Series to the town my mother was born in.
“That’s still my Plan A. And if Plan A doesn’t work, we’ll go to Plan B, C, D, and E.”
For now, his plan is just fine with the Tigers, who won’t mind a hitter so skilled, and still so far from his prime and peak, bashing baseballs and becoming, quite possibly, one of the league’s more volatile bats.