Lakeland, Fla. – Nick Castellanos is one of just a handful of position players who hasn’t checked in yet at TigerTown.
Miguel Cabrera hasn’t either, nor has Ronny Rodriguez, Pete Kozma or Gordon Beckham. But it’s all good. They don’t have to be here until Sunday. Nobody is worried about any of them skipping the start of full-squad workouts.
Still, it’s probably fair to wonder about Castellanos’ state of mind.
He avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $9.95 million contract last month, but he’s keenly aware the Tigers have had him on the trade block all offseason and will continue to listen to trade offers up until and beyond the non-waiver trade deadline, July 31.
His agent, David Meter, told the Free Press last month that Castellanos’ preference was to be traded before spring training started.
“He wants to win and understands the direction of the franchise right now is to procure prospects,” Meter was quoted as saying. “That being said, he would rather start with his new club going into spring training.”
Castellanos, who had a previous family commitment and was excused from TigerFest, has yet to speak publicly on all of this. Clearly, it’s not likely he will get his wish and start with a new club this spring.
So, what are the Tigers expecting to see on Sunday – a ultra-motivated Castellanos, a sullen and brooding Castellanos, or the same, hard-working, happy-go-lucky Castellanos?
“I haven’t seen him or talked to him, so I don’t know what his thoughts are,” manager Ron Gardenhire said Thursday, after pitchers and catchers went through their first full official workout. “I’m sure we will have a conversation and go from there.
“My goal is to get him in here to camp, get him locked in out in right field and hope he has a great year – for our team.”
Gardenhire has been through this before. When he managed the Twins, he had two of his key players – Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel – hit free agency the same year.
“It happens to a lot of people and a lot of teams,” he said. “These kinds of things happen in baseball. But all that stuff needs to go out the window when you get here. I just want to get him out there on the field with the rest of these guys.
“He’s my right fielder and he’s just going to go out and play. That’s what we’re hoping for.”
The agent’s comment didn’t seem to bother Gardenhire or general manager Al Avila.
“That’s something I can’t control and I wouldn’t want to,” Gardenhire said. “For every person, it’s their right in this country to have an opinion and make a statement. It’s not because he hates the Tigers. I think he just wants to know what’s going to happen in his career.
“It’s not about anything other than that.”
Avila was asked about the comment at TigerFest.
“That’s something where he felt like he needed to express that publicly and that’s fine,” he said. “We have talked about it. It’s not out of the ordinary. But those comments will have no effect on the team or his performance.
“He will come in in great shape. He will come in and compete and he’ll be one of the better hitters in the lineup. I expect him to have a great season.”
If you know Castellanos even a little, he’s probably insulted by the notion that he’s going to come to camp extra motivated because of the events of this offseason. As former manager Brad Ausmus often pointed out, Castellanos has a genuine yearning for greatness. That yearning isn’t going to be heightened or lessened by the business side of the game.
“You know, there is no guarantee that he won’t end up playing here all year,” Gardenhire said. “That’s what the manager hopes, because he is a great hitter. I just want to get him back on the field where he doesn’t have to worry about the other stuff.
“That’s what we’re going to talk about.”
The situation has put Avila in a tough spot, at least in terms of diplomacy. He has made his reasons for trading Castellanos known – he is entering free agency after this season and it’s too early in the Tigers’ rebuild to commit to the kind of dollars Castellanos will be seeking.
But, with the free-agent market going cold again this offseason, the trade market also lagged. Avila has been put in the position of trying to explain why he hasn’t been able to move Castellanos, without further eroding his value.
“It’s not something you can force,” Avila said. “There’s not really a lot of people coming after him right now. It could change in spring training, it could change during the season. I don’t know.”
Or, like Gardenhire said, it may not change at all and Castellanos, who turns 27 next month, could play the entire 2019 season with the Tigers.
“We’d love to keep him right here for the year and have him in the middle of our lineup,” Avila said. “Unless something worthwhile is there, there’s no reason for us to do anything.”
What then? Do the Tigers just let Castellanos hit the free-agent market next winter without getting anything in return? Not necessarily.
Avila has intimated that they could put a qualifying offer on Castellanos, as a way to get a draft pick back as compensation to losing him in free agency. That offer would be in excess of $17.9 million (this year’s amount).
If Castellanos is traded during the season, the qualifying offer goes out the window for the Tigers or whatever team trades for him.
Is it out of the question that Castellanos would consider taking the qualifying offer? It would push his free agency until 2020, when he will be going into his age-29 season. Mike Trout and J.D. Martinez could also be hitting free agency that winter.
But, with so many good to elite free agents still unsigned, including Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Craig Kimbrel, who knows what kind of money Castellanos would get? Playing a year for $18-$19 million might not be the worst idea.
Regardless, expect Castellanos to be more driven than distracted when he does arrive here later this week.
One, he’s always motivated to be great; that's just how he's wired. Two, he’s never been one to make his discontentment public (like when he was abruptly yanked from third base and put in right field in September 2017). And three, he knows the best way, maybe the only way, for him to control his future is by having another monster offensive season and continuing to make strides defensively.