Uncertain left field situation means Castellanos will play with Tigers this season

Nick Castellanos will start his 2013 season with the Toledo Mud Hens, but it shouldn't be long before circumstances put him in left field in Detroit.

Nick Castellanos will start his 2013 season with the Toledo Mud Hens, but it shouldn’t be long before circumstances put him in left field in Detroit.

Three years ago, a late email almost cost the Detroit Tigers the chance to sign Nick Castellanos. But thanks to some quick fingers on a cell phone, that miscue was corrected.*

With his sweet left-handed batting stroke, the blue chip prospect is one of the most heralded young players to come out of the Detroit organization in years, yet he’s starting his 2013 season in Triple-A Toledo. But he won’t stay there long, and here’s why.

Andy Dirks is always an injury waiting to happen, and Quintin Berry is a 28-year old career minor leaguer with 94 games of big league experience who does one thing well – run. Together, Dirks and Berry have two good legs and an average throwing arm between them, but that won’t cut it if the Bengals want to scratch their way back to the Fall Classic. At some point, Castellanos will be in left field at Comerica Park in ’13. It’s just a matter of time.

It may not take long, since Dirks is already out of the lineup with his third injury of the spring. It’s supposedly a minor thing – swelling on his knee – but Dirks doesn’t have a great track record of staying healthy so far in his brief big league career. A collision with a wall (the reason for this recent injury), a tweaked ankle, a rib cage, a bruised hand – it’s always something with Andy.

When he’s healthy, Dirks gives the Tigers decent production from the left side of the plate. In just over a full season at the big boy level, Dirks has hit .293 and has shown that he can hit southpaws just about as well as right-handers. However, his on-base percentage and slugging is below average for a corner outfielder. His defense is only fair (if that), and on a team positioned to win it all, Dirks’ playing time won’t be guaranteed if there are better options and if he’s constantly getting dinged up like a Ford Pinto in a demolition derby.

That’s where Castellanos comes in. He’s the golden boy, the “can’t miss” prospect.

But what about Q, you say? Let’s get real here, Tiger fans. Quintin Berry was a nice little story last season when he came in to fill an open spot when Austin Jackson was sidelined with an injury. Berry hit over .300 with an OBP near .400 in part-time duty for the first two months he was with the Tigers, while being perfect in steal attempts. But (and this is a big but), Berry showed his true colors over the course of the season. He plummeted to earth by hitting barely over .200 from July 1 on. There was a reason that Jim Leyland started to use Berry sparingly – Quintin’s not an everyday big league player. He doesn’t get on base enough, he’s really terrible at tracking fly balls, he has a poor throwing arm, and he has no power. That leaves Berry as a pinch-runner and occasional left-handed pinch-hitter. I don’t have a problem with Q being on the bench to give the Tigs some much-needed speed when they need it, but he’s not a major league outfielder. Not even close. There’s a reason he spent seven years in the minor leagues.

So back to Castellanos, the kid that Al Kaline says “has a swing you love to watch.” That’s from The Line – who’s been working in baseball since the Eisenhower administration.

Castellanos was ranked second among all prospects by Baseball America in power potential and hitting in 2012. He’s ranked among the top 50 prospects in organized baseball for the last two years. He hit .333 as an 18-year old in his first short excursion into pro ball. He batted .312 with line-drive power against much more experienced competition in his first full pro season at West Michigan in 2011. Then, last season, after turning heads at spring training, Castellanos started the year at Lakeland, the Tigs top Single-A club. he absolutely crushed opposing pitchers to the tune of a .405 batting average and posted a .465 OBP in 55 games. That earned him a promotion all the way up to Double-A Erie where he showed he could pop the ball for power by smacking seven homers and 15 doubles in less than half a season. He was named the Best Batting Prospect in the Eastern League and was asked to play in the Arizona Fall League last November. Oh, and in the 2012 Futures Game at All-Star Weekend, it was Castellanos who hit the game-winning home run. A witness to that exciting blast, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn marveled at how well the young Castellanos uses his hands.

“He has great control of the bat in the [hitting] zone,” said Gwynn.

In 15 games in the Tiger spring training camp this year, Castellanos hit .360 and showed off improved strike-zone judgment. Tiger veterans were keen to get another look at the prospect and they came away impressed, as did Leyland. But GM Dave Dombrowksi shipped Castellanos to minor league camp, explaining that the 21-year old needs to play every day to mature into a major league ready hitter. He’s also been switched from his natural third base position to the outfield (for obvious reasons … can you spell M-I-G-G-Y?).

Very well. Castellanos could use some every day seasoning for sure. But, there’s just as good a chance that he’s ready now to be a good hitter in the majors, and that if he plays every day he could be even better by the stretch drive. Why not season him in the Motor City?

Castellanos offers more power potential than Dirks. And if Andy is used off the bench, it solves a lot of problems for Detroit. First, it ensures that Dirks doesn’t get beat up physically by the rigors of a 162-game schedule. Second, Dirks would make the Tiger bench much improved. One of the dirty little secrets of the 2012 Tigers was how porous their bench was. There were post-season games in which Don Kelly and Gerald Laird were pinch-hitting. I love me some G-Money, but that’s just terrible. Bench strength can make the difference between winning a playoff spot and sitting on your butts watching the post-season. The Tigers did not have a top-notch pinch-hitter on their bench last season, and Dirks would give them someone who has shown he can hit. It’s a job better suited for him than for Castellanos, who needs to learn his way around the big leagues.

If he’s not using a walker, Dirks will be in the opening day lineup for the Tigers. But Castellanos – the young hot shot who has hit everywhere he’s played – deserves to get a chance. Tiger fans don’t have to hope for that to happen, they can be fairly sure that it will. The opportunity is almost certain to present itself.

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*On August 15, 2010, three minutes after the league’s midnight deadline, the Tigers’ front office emailed the details of a Castellanos contract to MLB’s offices in New York. The league could have invalidated the deal, setting Castellanos free to become an amateur free agent or to play college baseball, but a text message that was sent by Dave Dombrowski’s office at 11:59 PM was evidence enough for the commissioner’s office, and the deal was ratified.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.