End of the innocence: Sad to watch Nick Castellanos' joy for the game bleed out in Detroit

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Nick Castellanos

Detroit — This isn’t a sexy take, I get that. But the truth oftentimes isn’t very sexy. And the truth in this case is, there are no villains in the Nick Castellanos saga.

The Tigers, as Castellanos has said, never extended a formal contract extension offer. My understanding of the situation is that it was clear from the first informal talks with Castellanos’ former agent David Meter that the two sides were so far, far apart on the dollars that further negotiation would be futile.

So, even before training camp the Tigers had all but decided to move on without him. That decision was cemented earlier this season when Castellanos switched agents and hired Scott Boras.

More: Nick Castellanos sees little hope of getting extension with Tigers

You can argue the rights and wrongs of it, you can argue the relative pros and cons of keeping Castellanos as one of the foundations of the rebuilding process. But the reality is, Castellanos is going to be 30 years old when the Tigers, optimistically, will be ready to compete for a title.

Sentimentally, this is a guy you drafted and invested nearly a decade in grooming and growing into one of the better hitters in the American League. This is a player who in his heart wanted to be a Tiger for life, like Al Kaline. You’d think he’d be the kind of player the Tigers could anchor the rebuild on.

But that’s not how this business works anymore. It’s way more cold-blooded than that.

Always honest

I was thinking the other day about a conversation Jason Beck of MLB.com and I had with Castellanos in a mostly empty clubhouse in Lakeland this spring. We were talking about why the Tigers hadn’t made him an offer. He said, paraphrasing, that if the Tigers would throw all the analytics out of the equation, if they just sat down and negotiated a deal based on his heart, his talent and his growth over the past six seasons, they could hammer out a deal in no time.  

And if this were 2014 or 2015, that might’ve been exactly what happened. But it’s not. The economic landscape for free agents, even those still south of 30, has been forever altered by analytical data. Analytics has effectively killed sentimental signings. Teams go into negotiations now with actuarial tables, not only coldly calculating a player’s net worth, but also projecting a player’s decline.

Intangibles aren’t factored in.

You already know this. No need to site the examples of players with as much or more pedigree than Castellanos who either signed one-year or minor-league deals this off-season — or didn’t sign at all until last week. And especially vulnerable these days are one-dimensional players.

For all his improvement in right field, Castellanos still is considered an offense-only asset. So, the Tigers made a business decision. You can agree or disagree with it, but you can’t fault them for it.

Same with Castellanos. He’s done absolutely nothing wrong throughout this process. His comments to reporters Friday were honest and forthright. They reflected a player who has already dealt with his disillusionment and is ready to move forward with his career — wherever that may be.

“I'm not out here begging for an extension,” he said. “I'm not out here saying that what they're doing is wrong. That's their job. They have to do it the best way that they see fit, with the people that they see fit. And my job is to play baseball and to keep myself healthy and to go out and compete and be in a uniform as long as I possibly can for whatever team would like my services to help win.

Nick Castellanos

“The more that I've been in this game, you kind of start realizing that. And you hear veterans like Victor [Martinez] and Torii [Hunter] and Austin Jackson, K-Rod [Francisco Rodriguez] talk about it the same way: Be careful falling in love with the name on the front of the jersey, because it's a business."

That’s what this process has done to Castellanos more than anything else, it’s killed that innocence he had even back before the 2018 season when he said he wanted to be a Tiger for life like Al Kaline. Those feelings were dead even last September when the Tigers asked him to move to first base.

His response: Offer me an extension, show me that I’m a part of the future here, and I will play anywhere you ask. But that wasn’t part of the deal. Already in the minor leagues he'd agreed to move from shortstop to third base to right field and to left field in the minor leagues. He made his big-league debut in left, switched to third base in 2013 and then moved to right field in 2018.

Now you want him to play first?

“So last year, when obviously there was no commitment towards me, I chose: I just want to stick to right and try to be as good as I can in one spot,” he said. “That was the first time where I said no. I've said yes a lot. So last year, it was just like, ‘No, not right now. I'm going to continue taking my reps in right field and be as best as I can out there.’”

End is near

You can’t vilify him for that. The “it’s a business” line works both ways. Castellanos, entering free agency for the first time, playing for a non-contending team that has stamped him a lame-duck, has every right to look after his own best interests.

And nobody is trying to paint him as a sympathetic figure, either. Castellanos is going to get paid. He is entering free-agency at 28, the same age that another offense-only player, J.D. Martinez, was before he signed his monster deal with the Red Sox.

Castellanos may even end up playing for a contender after the trade deadline. He’s going to be OK, believe that.

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What’s sad, at least to me watching this whole thing unfold the last five years, is seeing the innocence and joy get bled from such an exuberant, fun-loving player.

You could sense baseball becoming less of a game and more of a job to him with each passing year.

He looked up me at the end of our conversation this spring and gave one of the saddest but truest quotes ever: “Baseball is a kid’s game, man. Business is an adult’s game.”

Amen, Nick. Godspeed.


Twitter: @cmccosky