Published March 22, 2017
I have no idea if Nicholas Castellanos owns an outfielder’s glove anymore. If he does, it’s likely hidden away somewhere, never seeing the light of day.
It’s doubtful that he’ll need it anyway.
The Tigers no longer have any intentions of putting the square peg that is third baseman Castellanos into the round hole of left field. That grand experiment, borne out of desperation and circumstance, is over with.
Castellanos came to the Tigers as a third baseman, and will probably forever remain a third baseman, until maybe his autumn years when designated hitter or first base beckon, as they do for many older players.
But in between being drafted and becoming entrenched at third, the Tigers tried to make Castellanos an outfielder.
Nicholas—he doesn’t go by “Nick” anymore (unless you forget)—was given the hurry-up call and was tossed an outfielder’s mitt in 2013, when Victor Martinez’s knee injury had a monumental domino effect.
Martinez was prepping for his second season as the Tigers’ DH and occasional catcher/first baseman when he wrecked a knee during workouts in January of 2012.
It was a major blow to the Tigers’ pennant hopes, so owner Mike Ilitch merely greenlighted the signing of Prince Fielder the following month.
Fielder, a first baseman and a first baseman only, forced the team to move Miguel Cabrera back to third base.
Castellanos, at the time, was a promising third sacker making his way up the ladder in the Tigers’ minor league system.
Finally, in September of 2013, the Tigers called up Castellanos for a cup of coffee.
There was only one problem: where was Nick going to play? Not only that September, but going forward?
Fielder was at the time shackled to the Tigers with an onerous contract, and therefore Cabrera was still at third base. No youngster was going to crack the lineup at the hot corner with Miggy there.
Hence the Grand Outfield Experiment.
Castellanos took his crash course. He had to, in short order, un-learn a lot about foot and glove work, and apply a different set of mechanics that outfield play required.
In the days of Little League and pick-up games as children, outfield was where the least talented kids were plopped.
But that’s not the case in big league baseball. Not everyone can be put out there and thrive. Just think of some of the worst outfield defenders you’ve seen butcher fly balls and take routes to the ball more circuitous than an aggressive New York City cab driver.
But the Tigers had no choice. They loved Castellanos’ potential and his bat, which they envisioned as being a big one someday.
If the youngster was going to be in the majors with the Tigers, it would have to be in left field.
The results were predictable.
Castellanos wasn’t awful during his left field baptism by fire, but nor was he anything close to a Gold Glove candidate. He made some easy plays look hard, but nor did he cost the Tigers any ballgames with his glove.
He would just have to be a work in progress, simple as that.
A funny thing happened, however, on Castellanos’ road to being the Tigers’ new starting left fielder.
Fielder had another bad post-season in 2013, made some ill-advised comments about it, and before you knew it, he was gone—traded to Texas for second baseman Ian Kinsler.
More dominoes fell.
Cabrera moved back to first base. Castellanos was told to put the outfield glove away and again un-learn a bunch of mechanics. He was going to be a third baseman again—as soon as Opening Day, 2014. As a rookie, no less.
These days, the only time Castellanos will see the outfield is if he has to chase down a Texas Leaguer.
Nicholas Castellanos is not only entrenched as the Tigers’ third baseman, he might bat second. Yet regardless of where he is in the batting order, Castellanos is one of the team’s most important pieces.
It was a joy to see Castellanos develop as a hitter last season, when he was, by far, off to the best start of his three-year career.
Then he was hit by a pitch in August and that was that.
Castellanos was hit on August 6 and didn’t play with the Tigers again until September 27, as the season drew to a close. He had 13 at-bats after being struck. He managed two hits and struck out five times.
It was a shame for a young player who seemed to be figuring out big league pitching at age 24.
Castellanos set career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, home runs and runs scored in 2016, and would have eclipsed previous highs in RBI and hits had he not missed so much time.
It’s all there for Nicholas to have a terrific 2017.
Reports from spring training say that Castellanos looks comfortable batting in the two-hole. The hand is healed and he seems ready to pick up where he left off last August.
Of course, spring training baseball and performances within it should often be taken with a grain of salt. Nothing matters until the curtain is drawn on Opening Day.
“He can’t just do it for six weeks in spring training,” Tigers skipper Brad Ausmus said recently. “You’ve got to do it once the season starts for 162 games.”
But this isn’t 2014, when Castellanos was a question mark as a rookie. He’s a bona fide big leaguer now. He has more cred, as they say.
And he doesn’t have to re-learn third base.
The 2017 Tigers will have no shortage of boppers in their lineup. Their fate, as always in baseball, will be tied to their starting pitching. Castellanos could have a true breakout year and it won’t mean a hill of beans if the Tigers don’t pitch.
Still, it’s wonderful to see a young player develop and play to his pre-big league hype. The Tigers haven’t homegrown too many of those types in recent years.