Lakeland, Fla. – There was a point last September when manager Ron Gardenhire seriously doubted that Willi Castro would be able to play shortstop at the big-league level.
“I told (infield coach Ramon) Santiago he was going to have to work that flat-glove drill with him,” Gardenhire said. “He can’t slide through the ball like he does. He has to center the ball. If he doesn’t he’s going to have a hard time being a shortstop.”
Flash ahead to Monday. Gardenhire was hitting fungos to Castro and the other shortstops during batting practice.
“I was really excited,” Gardenhire said. “Some of the mechanical things we talked about, they’re gone. All in one winter. … These are the improvements you just love. I told Santy afterwards, ‘He’s got it. He can do that. He can play shortstop with those mechanics.’”
Castro, who will turn 24 on April 24, played in 29 games last September. He made four errors and was a minus-4 defensive runs saved. He also made 22 errors at Triple-A Toledo. Uncharacteristic, especially with most of the errors coming on routine ground balls.
“I just got into a bad habit,” Castro said. “It’s like getting into a slump hitting, you need to make a correction. I trust my hands, you know. It’s something I wasn’t very happy with because I know my hands. I know I can do better this.
“It’s going to be a good year because I know what I was doing wrong.”
Castro got into the habit of angling his body toward first base when he fielded ground balls. He was sliding through the ball and trying to catch it more on the right side of his body. It caused his hands to be at an improper angle to field the ball cleanly.
Thus, Santiago gave him a round, flat, pancake-looking mitt and made him start his day using it in drill work. The flat glove has no webbing; the only way you can catch the ball is directly in the center. It also forces you to have your hand and wrist at the proper angle.
“I was using it back in the Dominican (this winter), too,” Castro said. “It was something that made me field the ball in the middle and it really helped me. I am sticking to that routine.”
He said he takes 15 to 20 ground balls with the flat glove every day.
“I feel a lot better,” he said. “Natural. It feels like me two years ago.”
The Tigers, barring injury, are expected to start the season with Niko Goodrum at shortstop with veteran Jordy Mercer likely to back up all four infield positions. That would leave Castro starting again at Toledo.
“I told him last year, if you keep sliding off the ball, it’s not going to happen,” Gardenhire said. “But he’s done something to put himself back in the picture at shortstop.”
Before he signed on as the Tigers’ organizational pitching coordinator, Dan Hubbs coached college baseball for 20 years, the last five at University of Southern California, where the last two years he had the pleasure of facing Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson twice a year.
Torkelson is on a short list of players who could end up selected by the Tigers with the first overall pick in the draft in June.
“You have to remember, we faced both him and Andrew Vaughn (third overall pick of the White Sox last year) in the same year,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that he and Vaughn only hit one home run each in high school.”
Hubbs said his pitchers “limited” Torkelson to two home runs in six games, but he had high praise for him.
“Torkelson and Vaughn are similar-type players where they can do damage in any part of the park,” he said. “Watching those two kids hit – I mean it’s very rare as a coach when you see a foul ball off the opposite side and you go, ‘Man, that ball went a long way.’
“The ball coming off their bat, it’s pretty special. Those two are two of the best hitters I’ve seen in college baseball in 20 years.”
Third base prospect Isaac Paredes remains shut down with right shoulder soreness. The club has not yet ordered an MRI.
… Lefty pitching prospect Joey Wentz (forearm strain) has resumed his throwing program.
… Catcher Jake Rogers (back) was cleared to resume baseball activities Tuesday.
… Outfielder Jacob Robson is still in concussion protocol.