'I was right in believing in myself': Nick Castellanos flourishes post-Tigers
Cincinnati — Nick Castellanos seems so much lighter these days. Not physically. He looks as lean and mean as ever at 29. But emotionally, professionally, it seems like he’s not carrying as much baggage around with him like he was during his final months with the Tigers.
He’s an All-Star now. Two and a half years removed from those last dark days in Detroit, days when being at the ballpark wasn’t nearly as joyous as they are for him now.
There he was Friday afternoon, throwing batting practice to his young son Liam on the field at Great American Ball Park. And Liam was raking, driving balls into the outfield from just a few feet in front of home plate.
With every line drive and every ball that cleared the infield, papa Nick would nod his appreciation to his son. Told that his son pounded baseballs like Victor Martinez’s son Victor did at Comerica Park back in the day, Castellanos smiled and said, “That’s high praise.”
Papa Nick is pounding baseballs, too. In the second year of a four-year, $64 million deal with the Reds, Castellanos is slashing .321/.377/.578 with an OPS-plus of 142. He’s got 26 homers and 78 RBIs and he’s helped the Reds to a half-game lead in the wild card race heading into play Saturday.
There have been reports that Castellanos will exercise the opt-out in his contract and enter the free agent market again after this season. Hold off on that for a bit.
"Nothing you heard has come from my mouth," he said Saturday before taking a round of early batting practice. "Any speculation about free agency is nothing that's come from my mouth. Right now, the only thing that's next for me is focusing on winning here.
“We have a chance to win here. I'm not going to squander that opportunity by thinking about something that's after the season."
Whether that narrative changes after the season or not — Castellanos will cross that bridge when he has to. Either way, he’s in a far different place professionally than he was in 2019. There was a time before that season Castellanos wanted to stay in Detroit. He wanted to be one of the pillars of the rebuild.
But he was 27 and making $9.5 million heading into his free agent year. The Tigers, still in full teardown mode, never came forward with a firm offer to extend his contract. And as the 2019 season chugged toward 114 losses, Castellanos started counting down the days to the trade deadline.
On July 31, hours before the deadline, Castellanos was about to come out to the on-deck circle to bat in the first inning against the Angels in Anaheim. He was hastily called back in and informed he’d been traded to the Cubs for pitching prospect Paul Richan and current Tigers reliever Alex Lange.
He was asked Saturday if what he’s done since he left Detroit — 56 homers, 148 RBIs, a .321 average with the Cubs in 2019 and again this season — has given him any sense of validation.
“The validation is I was right in believing in myself and who I am as a player,” he said. “It’s true, man, when you have a great player and the organization is in a time period where winning is not a priority, the culture can affect the spirit of the individual who is going out and playing every day.”
Instead of being embittered, which he seemed to be in his final days with the Tigers, he became ultra-motivated.
“I think that’s all there is,” he said. “It’s the nature of the business. Where I was in ’19, they didn’t feel like I was a piece they could build around. At the end of the day, all that did was put a little more gas on the fire.”
He’s caught up with the few former teammates that still remain with the Tigers. He had a long talk with Miguel Cabrera and Jeimer Candelario before the game Friday. He caught up with the Tigers medical and training staff.
He was locked into Cabrera’s quest for 500 home runs, too.
“Of course I was present to that,” he said. “That’s history and Miggy is one of my favorite teammates I’ve ever had.”
Told the quest brought Comerica Park back to life for a week, Castellanos nodded.
“That should show the league how important players are to baseball still,” he said. “That you can’t live and die by analytical formulas and expect a city or people to relate to that. If there is anything that Miggy’s quest to 500 should tell you, it’s that players are important to the game. They put the (butts) in the seats.”
As he was already three strides toward the batting cage, Castellanos was asked to assess his general state of being these days.
“I’m happy, man.”