The Detroit Tigers believe in Nick Castellanos.
After trading first baseman Prince Fielder this offseason to the Texas Rangers, the Tigers decided to move Miguel Cabrera back across the infield to clear a path for Castellanos, the team’s top prospect for the past three seasons, at the hot corner.
Facing enormous pressure to prove he deserves an everyday role on a potentially World Series-contending team, Castellanos has been one of baseball’s hottest hitters this spring. He's batted .333/.382/.548 with nine doubles, two home runs and 16 RBI in 20 games (63 at-bats).
Yet, in spite of his strong showing in major league camp this spring, Castellanos is still a relatively unknown commodity on a national level. That won’t be the case for much longer, though, as the 22-year-old—who is considered one of the preseason favorites to win the Rookie of the Year Award in the American League—seems poised to make an immediate impact this season.
Here’s what you need to know about Castellanos before he takes the field on Opening Day.
A supplemental first-round pick in 2010 out of Archbishop McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches, Fla., Castellanos impressed in his full-season debut in 2011, as the then-19-year-old batted .312/.367/.436 with 36 doubles and 76 RBI in 562 plate appearances for Low-A Michigan. He also led all Midwest League batters with 158 hits.
After moving up to High-A Lakeland to begin the 2012 season, Castellanos batted .405/.461/.553 with 87 hits through his first 55 games in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Florida State League. His overwhelming success at that level led to a midseason promotion to Double-A Erie, where his plate discipline was challenged for the first time as a professional.
Castellanos still managed to hold his own over 79 games at the more advanced level, batting .264/.296/.382 with 15 doubles and seven home runs, but he struggled to make consistent contact and posted a 76-14 strikeout-to-walk rate in 341 plate appearances.
2013 in Review
In spite of his struggles at Erie, the Tigers aggressively promoted Castellanos to Triple-A Toledo to begin the 2013 season. To make things more complicated, the organization decided to deploy him in left field on an everyday basis after experimenting with him in at the position during the second half of 2012.
While Castellanos endured his share of ups and downs throughout the season (as expected with a young hitter in an advanced league), the then-21-year-old showed the ability to make quick adjustments at the plate and ultimately batted .276/.343/.450 with 37 doubles, 18 home runs and 76 RBI in 595 plate appearances.
Castellanos also demonstrated a more advanced approach that produced career-best strikeout (16.8 percent/100 strikeouts) and walk (9.1 percent/54 walks) rates. And while he had always shown plenty of gap power in previous years, Castellanos finally exhibited more consistent over-the-fence pop in 2013, as 18 of his 56 extra-base hits left the yard.
As expected, Castellanos’ strong showing at the dish was enough to get him to the major leagues as a September call-up, and the Tigers wasted no time getting him into games. They used him as a pinch hitter later that day (Sept. 1) against the Cleveland Indians.
Castellanos received his first start on Sept. 7 against the Kansas City Royals, and picked up the first hit and run scored of his career as part of a 1-for-2 effort. He ultimately appeared in 11 games over the final month of the season, collecting five singles in 18 at-bats.
Castellanos is one of the purest hitters among prospects, with a fluid inside-out swing, advanced bat-to-ball skills and outstanding barrel control that could make him a .300-plus hitter in the major leagues.
While Castellanos always been a consistent source of extra-base hits during his career, the right-handed hitter’s line drive-oriented swing still limits his home-run power. However, he stands to grow into more consistent over-the-fence pop by adding strength to his lanky, 6’4”, 210-pound frame and learning to turn on the ball. And if Castellanos develops as hoped and comes close to reaching his power ceiling, he could potentially emerge as a consistent 20-plus homer threat.
Even though Castellanos made strides offensively last season, his overaggressive approach and penchant for expanding the strike zone is a legitimate concern as the 22-year-old embarks on his first full season in the major leagues. Plus, given Castellanos’ inside-out swing and flat bat path, there’s some skepticism about his ability to handle inner-half velocity.
Therefore, since Castellanos is likely to strike out 100-plus times this season—he’s fanned anywhere from 100 to 130 times in each of the past three seasons—he will need to keep improving his walk rate, which is easier said than done against major league pitching.
Drafted and developed as a third baseman until mid-2012, the Tigers moved Castellanos to left field as a way to potentially get his bat to the major leagues ahead of schedule. However, the position change ultimately hurt his stock; he proved to be a below-average defender and struggled to improve his reads and routes over the course of the season.
Castellanos is seemingly in a better position (literally) to succeed this season by returning to the hot corner, where he profiles as a potentially average defender with so-so range and plus arm strength. That being said, his glove, footwork and overall feel for the position are relatively raw after spending the last year-plus in the outfield. Yet, while his defense will be a work in progress for the next few years, Castellanos’ promising bat should outweigh some of those shortcomings.
The Tigers' decision not to add an experienced third baseman this offseason following the Fielder trade indicated they believe Castellanos is capable of being an impact player sooner rather than later. However, it also meant the position was his to lose this spring—a potentially daunting situation for any young player. Thankfully, that never became an issue. The 22-year-old thrived in his first real opportunity to carve out a role as an everyday player.
Part of the reason for that success may have to do with just how much more comfortable Castellanos feels in 2014. He finally feels like he belongs, per Tony Paul of The Detroit News:
I feel better, just because I feel like I’m more a part of the team than last year. Last year, I really don’t think I had a shot to make the team out of spring. I think this spring, overall, I feel better, just because I feel like I’m actually really a part of the team, I really am a piece of the puzzle.
However, with Opening Day just a few days away, there’s one question on all our minds: Will Castellanos’ torrid spring translate to regular-season success?
According to the three major projection models (Oliver, Steamer and ZIPS), Castellanos is likely to offer league-average value this season, albeit as a left fielder. Although none of the models consider him a third baseman, at least not yet, they do collectively provide a realistic projection of his production this season.
Assuming he stays healthy and spends most of the season in the major leagues, Castellanos projects to hit anywhere from .255 to .277 as a rookie, with 15-plus home runs and upward of 60 RBI. He’s also expected to strike out in roughly 18 to 19 percent of his plate appearances, though that also leaves plenty of room for improvement in future seasons.
If you’re still skeptical about Castellanos’ offensive potential, then get this: There’s been one 22-year-old rookie third baseman since 1990 (via Baseball Reference’s Play Index) to bat at least .255 with 15 home runs, 60 RBI and 100 strikeouts, and his name is Evan Longoria (2008). Yes, the comparison represents a best-case scenario for Castellanos, but it also hints at his possible career trajectory should his rookie campaign unfold as expected.
*All videos courtesy of MLB.com/MLB Advanced Media.