Nick Castellanos shouldn't come with a panic button

Kevin C. Cox

The Tigers will have a 22-year-old rookie third baseman this year. So deal with it.

Fresh off his 20th birthday, the baseball phenom found himself called to the big leagues after tearing it up in the minors in Minneapolis, batting nearly .500 and driving scouts crazy coming up with adjectives.

At Philadelphia's Shibe Park, he took his place in the batting order -- third -- shoved the dark blue baseball cap with the orange, interlocking "NY" on his head, and set out to try this thing called Major League Baseball. He would bat in the first inning, after Giants teammates Eddie Stanky and Whitey Lockman. He would play center field.

The heavily-hyped rookie, Willie Mays, stepped into the batter's box on May 25, 1951, less than three weeks after turning 20. A quick check with Retrosheet.org tells us that the pitcher for the Phillies that day was a right-hander named Bubba Church.

Church, who would win all of 36 games in the big leagues, slipped a called third strike past the rookie in Mays' first at-bat.

In the third inning, Mays came up again. He grounded out to third base.

Mays took a collar in his first game, going 0-for-5. He went hitless the next day, too, in three at-bats. The day after that, another collar -- 0-for-4.

This big league thing wasn't like playing in Minneapolis, after all.

Finally, in his fourth game, Mays got a hit -- a home run off future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn in the first inning. Three more hitless at-bats followed.

The collars kept coming, more than the shirts in the men's department of your local Sears.

In Willie Mays' first week as a big leaguer for the New York Baseball Giants, his batting average was .038. He was 1-for-26.

The Giants stuck with him. Then Mays started hitting, and he didn't stop for the next 22 years. To that home run off Spahn, Mays would add 3,282 more hits.

Nick Castellanos might want to read up a bit on Mays. Hell, maybe the blabbermouths with cell phones who call into sports talk radio should read, too.

Can you imagine if Castellanos, the rookie ordained to play third base for the Tigers starting this year and for many years beyond, starts his 2014 season in a Mays-like 1-for-26 funk?

Why, it could be enough for folks to call for (gulp) Don Kelly!

Or, to move Miguel Cabrera back to third base and stick someone like Jordan Lennerton at first base. Or Victor Martinez, and have DH-by-committee.

The Chicken Little people would be out in full force, should Castellanos stumble out of the gate as badly as Mays did some 63 years ago.

On March 31, Castellanos finally makes the transition from prospect to big leaguer, when he slips the creamy white jersey with the Old English D over his 6'4" frame and gets after it as a full-fledged player -- not one of these September call-ups. On March 31, Castellanos is no longer the third baseman of the future. He is no longer a player waiting for a position to open up in Detroit.

First, it should be pointed out that Castellanos isn't replacing Cabrera at third base. He is replacing Prince Fielder on the roster. And last we saw on social media and heard on talk radio, Prince wasn't exactly beloved in Detroit.

Castellanos was drafted to be the Tigers' third baseman of the 21st century's second decade when he was plucked by the team from high school in 2010. Brandon Inge was playing the hot corner in Detroit at the time, but that didn't have a lot of long-term feel to it, especially with a hot shot like Castellanos worming his way through the system.

Then the Tigers, in a shocking move, signed Fielder as a mega-expensive free agent just before spring training two years ago. Fielder, welded to first base, bumped Cabrera across the diamond, to third base.

Castellanos, the third baseman of the future, suddenly became a man for which the Tigers scrambled to find a position. As long as Fielder and Cabrera manned the corners of the infield, Castellanos wasn't going to play third base.

Stuck, the Tigers gave Castellanos a crash course in playing left field.

And just when the kid thought he was grasping the outfield, the Tigers did an about face and traded Fielder to Texas last November. The move ping-ponged Cabrera back to first base, leaving Castellanos's original position wide open.

Even Willie Mays didn't have to change positions twice before being summoned to the big leagues.

Castellanos tossed the outfield glove aside and started taking ground balls, working with new infield coach Omar Vizquel a couple times in the off-season, which is like a young opera singer working with Pavarotti.

The future at third base is now. There is no safety net of a September trial. Either Nick Castellanos can hack it at third base, or he can't. The meal money is big and the traveling is all by plane now. The ball parks aren't quaint anymore. "Someday" is here.

You know what? The kid will be fine.

Sure, it's a hunch, but it says here that a flame out isn't on the horizon. There may be some cringe-inducing moments. Maybe he'll throw wild to first base, costing the team a game in the late innings. Some nasty right-hander will eat him alive with some sliders from Hell. There may be days at a time where it looks like the bright lights of the big leagues are blinding him with their glare.

Maybe he'll start the season 1-for-26.

But here's the rub. The Tigers don't need Nick Castellanos to be Mike Schmidt. There is enough talent surrounding the 22-year-old-to-be in Detroit that if he needs to be "hidden" in the lineup at times, so be it. With the glove, the Tigers should be happy if Castellanos merely makes the plays that an average third baseman makes. There's plenty of time for improvement.

Hey, at least Castellanos doesn't have a manager who is calling him "the next Mickey Mantle," as Sparky Anderson did to Kirk Gibson after Gibby arrived in Lakeland from East Lansing.

Had talk radio existed in 1951, when Willie Mays was flailing in his early days as a Giant, the fans in Upper Manhattan would have had the Say Hey Kid back in Minneapolis, forthwith. And he turned out to be pretty good.

If Nick Castellanos comes out of the starting block wearing lead cleats in 2014, give the kid some time. Like, at least 26 at-bats.

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