Charismatic Willi Castro grateful for ‘better opportunity’ with Tigers

By Lynn Henning, The Detroit News
Willi Castro

Erie, Pa. — If he makes it to Detroit as that future everyday shortstop the Tigers have been chasing, television crews will love Willi Castro.

And so, it would seem, will fans.

This is one charismatic young man.

Steady, unforced smile. Smooth conversationalist, limited only by a low inventory of English words he can wield within a new language he otherwise speaks with admirable ease.

Castro sat in front of his Erie SeaWolves locker Tuesday a week after the Tigers landed him in a trade with the Indians that sent Leonys Martin to Cleveland.

Yes, he said, the Indians had prepared him for a trade given that Francisco Lindor is cemented into Cleveland’s lineup for at least the next three years. No, he explained, he had no idea the Tigers had been hunting him for the past year.

“I think I have a better opportunity with the Tigers,” said Castro, who, with his new Double A teammates was hanging in the clubhouse, waiting for rain and clouds to vanish, which they did in time for a 7:05 p.m. game against the Portland Sea Dogs at UPMC Park. “Everyone tells me: Just keep hitting the ball hard, playing hard, running the bases hard.”

They’re saying the same thing, the Tigers are, to two more Erie infielders who with Castro are rotating every three or four games between short, third base, and second base. Isaac Paredes is part of the shuffle, although the most public secret anywhere in Detroit’s developmental sphere is that Paredes, who is 19, probably will land at second or third.

Sergio Alcantara, 21, started at short in Tuesday’s game, had two singles in what turned into a 5-3 victory for the SeaWolves, and is the third contestant. He has beautiful footwork and a plus-plus arm. Alcantara switch-hits, as does Castro, who Tuesday was planted at second while Paredes worked third.

Castro was 0-for-4 but the numbers were pure lies. He torched two liners to center, one of which was caught with an over-the-shoulder running catch, while the other was a lightning bolt nearly to the warning track. They came during at-bats on either side of the plate.

How this shell-game of a sweepstakes shakes out is key to roster reconstruction now under way at Comerica Park. The Tigers will be fresh out of starting shortstops when Jose Iglesias heads into the offseason as a free agent unlikely to return. That raises questions for 2019 and beyond.

None of the above crew is expected to make much noise next season, in Detroit anyway, but by 2020 one could be an Opening Day choice, with some early bets on Castro.

 He began with Erie as if he wants that Tigers job — now.

Double in his first game. Single in his second. Double and a single in game No. 3. Triple the next day, followed by a double and a home run Sunday.

Sergio Alcantara

Erie manager Andrew Graham sat in his office Tuesday explaining what he knew and didn’t know about Castro ahead of last week’s game.

In fact, the SeaWolves had seen him in earlier games against Akron, the Indians Double A team.

“When we faced him, what stood out was that he was a solid defender,” Graham said. “He’s got an arm to make all the plays — not like Alcantara. But no one does.”

In the early days of August, a switch-hitter’s potential has been the story.

“I like his bat,” said Graham, whose Erie team is loaded with some of the Tigers farm’s more prized prospects: Daz Cameron, Beau Burrows, Alex Faedo, and, if they can get their bats going — Jake Rogers and Cam Gibson.

“And,” Graham said, speaking again of Castro, “he’s got some speed. I like him in that 2-hole (batting second).”

They are traits the Tigers found particularly appealing when Castro this spring turned 21.

Willi Castro was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in the Dominican Republic, where he was playing when the Indians signed him at 16. He has moved quickly, always a year or so ahead of where players his age customarily are located, which the Tigers noted as they became intrigued.

He was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in the Dominican Republic, where he was playing as a 16-year-old when the Indians signed him. He has moved quickly, always a year or so ahead of where players his age customarily are located, which the Tigers noted as they became intrigued.

He neither dazzled nor struggled, as his five-season farm numbers imply: .264 batting average, .306 on-base, .376 slugging. If there’s a soft spot for a man 6-foot-1, 165 pounds, it has been his lower-voltage power: 27 homers and 82 doubles in 1,814 at-bats.

But, again, his age factors. The Tigers see more crunch coming after Castro has spent time in that massive weight-room at their Lakeland, Florida, minor-league complex.

Castro, his face lighting up, has heard all about it. He sees it as part of a new organization and culture that in the early days hasn’t disappointed.

“Really comfortable,” he said, mentioning the welcome-to-Erie style shown by teammates and by Graham. “They make me feel good.”

That he steadily feels good about his at-bats will be the Tigers’ prayer. They need not only a guy who can lock down the infield’s left side, but a shortstop who can drive the ball. Playoff rosters tend to feature shortstops who can create runs and not only save them with their glovework.

Matching up against left-handed and right-handed pitching is an edge, of course, switch-hitters at least technically bring to the lineup.

Castro was a certified right-handed hitter until he was 14. He took a shot at swinging left-handed and liked it. Seven years later, it’s part of the portfolio the Tigers believe will follow him to Comerica Park.

In fact, it’s from the left side, his newer batting location, that Castro hits better: .666 OPS versus .617.

“I see more right-handed pitching,” he said. “That’s why I’m a little more better left-handed. I’m getting the hang of it.”

Perhaps it’s because he also studies the game. Tuesday afternoon, while teammates played cards or unboxed bats — typical pregame diversions during a long season — Castro stopped twice to focus on the clubhouse television.

It was tuned to the Astros-Giants game. A young infielder, with curly hair and with a chin buried in his right hand, fixated on Marwin Gonzalez’s long at-bat.

What he was processing was best known to Castro. But in a few years, it could instead be a youngster somewhere in the bushes who is focused on how a Tigers infielder named Castro goes about his game-day, big-league business.