Published April 7, 2018

He is the erstwhile third baseman. The accidental right fielder. In a flash he’s gone from wide-eyed rookie to young veteran leader.

Nicholas Castellanos looks around him and after so many dominoes have fallen, he finds himself thrust to the forefront.

The Tigers clubhouse has had the nameplates of Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Ian Kinsler and Alex Avila torn from their lockers in less than a year. Only Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez can be considered old guard anymore.

Castellanos is part of the youngish old guard now. He might be one of the oldest 26-year-olds in the big leagues, given what he’s already experienced.

It was already four seasons ago when Castellanos was the 22-year-old rookie third sacker on a Tigers team that had high aspirations. He’d been a third baseman in the minor league system, then was hastily shifted to left field after the signing of Prince Fielder moved Cabrera to third base.

But when the curtain raised on the 2014 season, Castellanos was back at third base, his original position. The game of musical mitts seemed to have stopped.

The hot corner

Third base isn’t for the faint of heart. You’re a human target, charged with spearing rockets that are seemingly never hit right at you. Everything requires a bold dash to the left or right. Every year, many a third baseman is swallowed whole by a blast that can decapitate if one isn’t careful.

In the post-WWII history of baseball, the list of truly outstanding defensive third basemen is short. You have Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Ken Boyer, Ron Santo and then everyone else. There’s a reason for that.

Castellanos, as a third baseman, was part of everyone else. Some would say that he was on the lower echelon of everyone else.

Former Tigers manager Brad Ausmus would routinely substitute for Castellanos in the late innings, which chafed Nicholas. It was the age-old conundrum: if a guy needs to improve, how can he improve if he’s on the bench in crunch time?

Ausmus didn’t trust Castellanos at third base when push came to shove, and in retrospect that might not have been the best approach to take with a young man trying to get better.

The Tigers solved the Castellanos conundrum by tossing him into right field last year.

In Little League baseball and in sandlot games, the weakest fielder plays right field. In the big leagues, that’s not the case. The position requires a cannon for an arm, superior instincts and the knack for playing caroms and banks as that of a pool hustler. It’s the domain of Clemente and Kaline.

So Castellanos, at 26, is already on his third position in MLB. Maybe, finally, he has found a home. Or rather, the Tigers have found him a home after moving him around like a chess piece.

Home in RF?

Castellanos, as a right fielder, isn’t anywhere near the level of Clemente or Kaline but he’ll be there for probably 150 games this year and Kaline himself worked with him in spring training, as Al has done every year with young outfielders since he retired 43 years ago. Castellanos can only get better. Literally.

But it’s his bat that is making Castellanos a leader on the Tigers. He’s batting cleanup, to show you, behind the great Cabrera. The Tigers would love for Nicholas to be a shutdown defender in the outfield but for now, they need his pop in the batter’s box.

In his four big league seasons heading into this one, Castellanos has been steadily improving offensively.

In 2017, the so-called breakout season happened.

Related image

Castellanos slammed 26 home runs, led the league in triples with 10, and surpassed 100 RBI (101) for the first time. His BA of .272 was solid and though his OPS (On-base percentage plus slugging) dropped slightly from .827 to .811, the eye test showed that the young man from Florida was on his way to becoming a big bat.

And it all happened against the backdrop of a cancer scare with his dad, which wreaked havoc with Nicholas mentally.

The 2018 season is tender young but Castellanos is batting .385 (10-for-26) and already has two triples. He hasn’t hit a home run in the regular season yet but slammed four of them in spring training. He is entrenched as a veteran leader. Castellanos is slowly becoming a go-to for the media types when they need a pulse check on the Tigers.

He has the boyish good looks that play well with the Tigers’ female fans. And in a season that promises to be filled with losses, the matinee idol thing might help assuage the pain with at least one gender.

Maturing before our very eyes

Castellanos was at the center of attention on Opening Day, when his apparent game-winning slide into home plate appeared to seal a walk-off victory over the Pirates in the ninth inning. The run would have capped an incredible five-run rally in the ninth.

But a laborious replay review that took nearly four minutes quashed the run; the call on the field was overturned. The Tigers lost in the 13th inning.

Castellanos might have handled the situation differently with the media in the clubhouse afterward a couple of years ago. He might have been smarmy and sassy. But instead he measured his words carefully, obviously certain that he felt that he was never tagged, yet not willing to be bratty about it. He was more mature.

He has to be now. Gone is so much veteran presence. Before the purging of the roster due to budget cuts, Castellanos could frolic in the shadows of his more tenured teammates. We could roll our eyes at his sometimes immaturity. Kids will be kids, we said.

The Tigers need Nick Castellanos now more than they ever have in his still young big league career. They need his bat. They need him to get better in the outfield. And, they need him to lead.

The Tigers appear to be done with shuffling Castellanos around the diamond. Right field is his place. He will never be Kaline out there but he has Kaline teaching him, so there’s that.

Castellanos has big dreams, which he shared in January during the Tigers’ winter caravan.

“I would love to be a franchise player here,” he said. “When I sit in my backyard and I’m looking up and just daydreaming about my dream career, it’s, I’m the kid that helped bring the World Series back to Detroit.

“That’s plan A: I never leave and I play 23 years in the big leagues here and I’m an unbelievable right fielder and now I’m in conversations with Al Kaline. That’s the dream. That’s the goal. That’s what I love.”

Tigers fans would love that too. Especially the female ones.