Toledo — In the midst of what general manager Al Avila calls the “darkest hour” for the Tigers, the big-league team will soon be showing off more farm system fruits from the early stages of the organizational reboot.
The most-prized pieces will continue their ripening into next season, but among this season’s crop could be infielder Willi Castro, who would be the second Castro from Triple-A Toledo to join the Tigers this year with a competent bat.
Willi could join Harold Castro as players with enough offensive propensity to provide small rays of hope as this fall nears in early spring of a long and painful rebuild, or whatever moniker you prefer.
“Willi has a knack for getting hits,” Toledo manager Doug Mientkiewicz said. “There's definitely some things he has to clean up as far as chasing some breaking balls down in the dirt, but he’s got a knack of finding the holes, and that’s what a good hitter does.”
Entering Saturday, Castro is slashing a .294 batting average, .380 on-base percentage and .435 slugging percentage in Toledo, among the leaders for Mud Hens regulars.
But at shortstop for Toledo, the fielding has caused concerns: His 16 errors represent 26.2 percent of Toledo’s 61 total errors this season.
“It’s focus, I think,” Castro said. “It's focusing a little more on the game, just try to play until the ninth inning, until the end. I think I’m doing a better job now doing that, I just have to keep doing my thing.”
Take a recent game against the Rochester Red Wings, where Castro threw a wild one in the nightcap wide to second base after going deep into the hole to make a nice stab.
“He’s been good at times, he’s been erratic at times,” Mientkiewicz said. “He’s young. He’s going to have to fight through those.”
But Mientkiewicz said the defense is progressing. Castro, 22, has only made one error since that June 21 game. Tigers relief pitcher Jose Cisnero, who played with Castro in Toledo and with Escogido this year in the Domincan Winter League, said the errors were not for a lack of effort.
“He’s working very hard down there,” Cisnero said, through a translator. “He’s at work all the time. He’s the first one in there taking ground balls, doing all the work that he has to.”
Still, there is some question about where in the infield Castro could one day play in the big leagues, provided he stays productive offensively.
A Hall of Famer who knows a thing or two about growing into a Tigers everyday shortstop role has noticed development in Castro, who said he added 10-15 pounds of strength in the offseason.
“I was there a week ago and he played very, very well,” roving instructor Alan Trammell said last weekend at the anniversary celebration for the 1984 World Series team. “I read the game reports and basically from what I’ve been told, we’re looking for more consistency.
“So we chatted and he’s aware of that, and sometimes it’s easier said than done. But that’s what any player, if they’re going to get to the major leagues, and be a good player for years to come, that’s what you have to do. “It’s not the talent. The talent level is there — people have talent in the minor leagues. But it’s the up and downs. It’s like the Dow Jones, you don’t want that.”
For Castro at the plate, it’s been more of a bull market in Toledo.
He’s doesn’t yet hit for power — he’s hit 34 home runs in 2,220 minor league at-bats — but still slots in the premium No. 3 hole for Mientkiewicz.
“I think that every time I’m in the box, I just try to think about just getting the good pitch, just to hit to the middle, try to hit it to the gap,” Castro said. “I just think to get the best pitch of the game. Try to hit it, not miss it.”
Castro looks like a nice find for Avila, who acquired the Puerto Rican, who moved to the Domincan Republic at 2 years old, from Cleveland in a 2018 deadline trade for Leonys Martin.
And Detroit could be a nice spot for Castro too, after looking for more than four years at an organization with a steady surplus of everyday infielders, with Jason Kipnis at second base, Francisco Lindor at shortstop and Jose Ramirez at third leading the way.
“I don’t think I was going to have the chance that I have here,” Castro said. “Here I will have a better chance than there.”
The front office continues to get reports and instructors like Trammell keep making the rounds, looking for enough positives to give a major-league chance to players who, collectively, have a lot to prove.
“I see a little, a couple bugaboos here and there, moreso than maybe I would like,” Trammell said of Castro’s reports. “But with that being said, these kids are still developing.
"I’m not trying to make excuses, but again, it’s a very difficult game. So I’m a little bit more understanding in that, but I still think that he’s a player."
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.