There is a kind of three-act play being staged at Comerica Park with respect to Nick Castellanos and his future with the Detroit Tigers.
It is moving toward a denouement, as they say in theater land, with either a trade, next year’s free agency, or that delectable baseball intricacy known as the Qualifying Offer combining for some Detroit baseball dramatics.
The stage narrative goes something like this:
Castellanos arrives in 2014 at Comerica Park as a 22-year-old regular third baseman and hitting prodigy. He bats .259 and .255 in his first two seasons, then climbs to .285, .272, and .298 in his next three years, with an average OPS during those last three seasons of .831. He hits a combined 49 home runs during the 2017-18 campaigns.
He switches positions along the way. The Tigers decide third base isn’t working and late in 2016 shift him to right field, which is where he played for one year-plus during his minor-league incubation.
He settles into right, but critics aren’t pleased. They want more defense. Of course, if they were getting Gold Glove work from Castellanos and weren’t seeing a bat to match, they would be fixated on his offense. Or, on his baserunning. Or whatever lesser link fulfills that human quest to critique.
Castellanos wheels into 2018s spring camp and three weeks later turns 26. The Tigers are re-doing their roster and Castellanos isn’t a great fit in terms of age, his rising salary, and the eventual value he can bring when the team finally positions itself to contend. The Tigers reason that by then he will be at least 30 and will be hyper-expensive if they intend to keep him in Detroit with a long-term contract.
This is where a plot turns sticky. The Tigers need all the young, pink-cheeked prospects they can amass. They understand the best contenders put together a core roster that can arrive and mature together at roughly the same pace. Castellanos is too old to help there, and too isolated in his skills to be a difference-maker in 2018 and probably 2019.
The Tigers are open to trading him for a quality young prospect — preferably, two of them. But there are no bidders. Everyone’s set in the outfield. Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, has no trade partners as July arrives. Nor any on the horizon as he moves into the 2018-2019 offseason.
Castellanos is four months from 27 and 12 months from free agency as Avila returns from the 2018 General Manager meetings and prepares for the annual flesh-fest that is about to convene in December at Las Vegas, otherwise known as baseball’s Winter Meetings.
Avila doesn’t expect excess browsers when Castellanos isn’t an elite player and when he has a year left on a contract, eligible for arbitration, that will cost probably $10 million or so. You’re going to fork over a quality prospect or two for a player who was worth 2.9 Wins Above Replacement in 2018 and who is headed for free agency?
Nor is the market likely to be cheery as Avila contemplates another potential mid-summer swap of Castellanos in 2019 — something on the level of his 2017 summer deals. Such trade fate would depend on a couple of events that aren’t highly probable.
A. Castellanos would need to hit in 2019 like a hot-ticket All-Star. It’s possible, of course, because he is on the cusp of becoming such a hitter: 300-plus average and on his way to 30 or more homers. That kind of spring and summer could get it done for Avila. If …
B. A contending team has a hole in one of its outfield corners. Avila has had lots of bodies available the past two summers — Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, to name two — and no market, in part because so many good teams haven’t been socked with a midseason injury virus. But think about how difficult it was to move J.D. Martinez in 2018, and how long Martinez sat in the free-agent aisles last winter, to appreciate how little sales passion there can be for a right-handed hitting outfielder.
We now approach this stage show’s resolution, which hasn’t quite been completed.
The likelihood is that Castellanos a year from now remains in Detroit. The Tigers probably will gulp hard and decide to make him a qualifying offer, which this autumn runs $17.9 million if clubs want to retain their free agents — or, optimally, get a draft pick should the player sign elsewhere, which almost certainly would be Avila’s wish.
But so much of this depends upon how he hits next season. Every bit as much, it hinges on the Tigers' outfield depth heading into 2020. Can they go with some combination of Christin Stewart in left field, Daz Cameron or JaCoby Jones in center, and, say, a kid like Danny Woodrow, whose fast feet and capacity for basepath commotion could conceivably morph into a full-time slot in right field?
These are thoughts maybe more than wishful as the Tigers look beyond next season’s horizon. But how it plays out will help determine if Castellanos gets that whopper of a qualifying enticement next fall or is allowed to sign elsewhere for whatever the market hands him.
There is, of course, another option, popular with folks who are obsessed with Castellanos’ defense in right. They want him to play first base.
Their logic: Castellanos played third base. Miguel Cabrera moved to an opposite infield corner. Why can’t Castellanos?
He was shifted from third base to right field for a reason. First base defense is huge. It is not a position that treats charitably players who are being deployed there as a convenience. That’s especially true when Castellanos is comfortable in right and when he’s getting better and when he is, as far as this critic is concerned, close to adequate there.
The Tigers probably will have a different position relocation in mind by 2020. Jeimer Candelario could migrate to first from third as the Tigers prepare for adding Isaac Paredes to their lineup, most likely as an everyday third baseman.
These are the knowns and unknowns as a curtain prepares to drop on Comerica Park and its acclaimed production of Waiting For Castellanos.
We’re yet anticipating a final, climactic moment. But as theater goes, this storyline, unresolved and uncertain, is most intriguing.