"Baseball is a rookie, his experience no bigger than the lump in his throat as he begins fulfillment of his dream."
The Detroit Tigers saw plenty of ballplayers make their major league debuts in 2014 en route to winning their 4th consecutive AL Central title. Theyeven carried a manager who was rookie skipper. However, no young player carried more of a burden than a player who did see a smattering of MLB at-bats in 2013, third baseman Nick Castellanos.
When news of the Prince Fielder trade struck during the off-season it didn't take long for word to leak out that the Tigers were moving Miguel Cabrera back to first base and they would be installing Castellanos at the hot corner for his rookie season.
Castellanos would end up playing in 148 games on the campaign and experienced the wide range of ups and downs often associated with 22 year olds in baseball. There were extended cold streaks, piping hot stretches with the bat, ugly looking swings, promising flashes of opposite field power, ugly defensive efforts, inexperienced decisions, and general "rookie-ness".
However, the key number in everything Castellanos did in 2014 probably is "22." He's a young player that was tossed into the mix without a real safety net on the roster to share any playing time with him on a regular basis. The job was Castellanos' period. You can't even truly say "it was his job to lose." Lose to whom? Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski was saddling up the youngster and riding him for the long haul. How did he do?
The Defense rests...uneasy
We can go stat for stat through all the defensive metrics you care to name. But why? As far as Castellanos was concerned in 2014, they were pretty much all brutal (and "brutal" is probably being polite). Lots of minus-signs and the word "negative" attached to his ratings. We all saw it: it wasn't good.
But you know what? From me, he gets a pass on his rookie season for the defensive foibles that were all too often on display. I really felt it would be ugly at times even if he had slightly surpassed expectations defensively.
I was probably in the minority that truly didn't like the Tigers eventual efforts to convert him to playing the outfield in the minors once Prince Fielder was signed prior to the 2012 season. It seemed like a bit of an overreaction and a move that was being rushed into action.
When the decision to convert Castellanos was made it was still a solid two seasons until he would be expected to contribute on the major league level. For all the Tigers knew, it could have taken longer. That was a lot of time for circumstances to change on the big league level. There was no guarantee that the logjam the Tigers saw looming would ever really happen. Injuries, trades, a move to DH, or other factors could easily open up an infield spot for Castellanos in due course. Also, keeping him at third base in the minors would have enhanced his trade value if it came to that.
So the Tigers embarked on the switch. This cost Castellanos 1 1/2 seasons of prime developmental time at third. That's a ton of reps which would have made his rookie season in Detroit possibly go much smoother one day. Then Fielder was traded.
Castellanos was tossed into the deep end of the pool. Suddenly playing third base with one offseason to re-acclimate himself to the infield. Defensively, he was set up to fail by the organization in many respects.
There were occasional good plays as just about anyone who received the playing time he did would make a few good plays just by showing up. But all too often we saw some questionable footwork, especially to his backhand side. Routine plays were often an adventure for the rookie as he worked his way through the season.
One of the few bright spots was that despite not having a cannon arm, Castellanos did flash a fairly accurate one. ESPN stats had Castellanos ranked 6th among third basemen in "good throws" with a 95.0 percent accuracy rate. (Juan Uribe was #1 at 97.2 percent, Pedro Alvarez dead last at 82.0 percent)
The good news again is at Castellanos' age there is still time for some improvement. More reps and general experience at the position making split-second decisions will help. He needs more coaching on the fundamentals of his footwork (note: I'm not a scout, but it sure seems that way to me) and there seems to be no reason he can't be further schooled on the fundamentals of that position at his age.
With a stick in his hands
Offensively, Castellanos showed plenty to build on for the future. He could get on rolls where he was lacing liners consistently as his 28.4 percent line drive rate would attest. There were also some displays of solid potential for opposite field power to one day develop.
However, Castellanos' rookie campaign will likely be remembered for being consistently "ordinary." His first half slash line of: .262/.307/.394 is really similar to the .255/.304/.394 he posted in the second half. If there was a true disappointment to his offensive performance, the general "sameness" at the end to match earlier months was probably it.
Castellanos was aggressive going after the first pitch and could be fooled on outside breaking stuff. His walk rate was a rather pedestrian 6.2 percent. There was definite impatience on display quite often. Again, all very understandable for a player so young not named "Trout."
The Tigers will be hoping Castellanos continues to follow the aging curve to his advantage. His prime developmental time is still upon us. For instance there are plenty of high draft picks who were plucked in this year's draft out of college who are basically Castellanos' age. They are just getting started professionally while Castellanos has weathered the storm of MLB already.
Put another way: many Tigers observers are hopeful that prospects like James McCann, Steven Moya, and Devon Travis will all one day contribute in a Tigers uniform. Castellanos is younger than all of them.
This season was the Nick's apprenticeship. The pay off in the investment is hopefully looming over the next few seasons.
My expectations for a 22-year old were fairly low, to be honest. We all hoped he would explode and be a Rookie of the Year candidate but that didn't materialize.
I expected an up-and-down offensive performance. We saw that. I hoped the end product would look slightly more advanced than how it looked down the stretch, but I won't quibble. I like the line drive stroke.
Defensively, I expected him to be awful. He was actually a bit worse than I hoped. Thus the overall grade slightly below meeting expectations.
I have seen some whispers in various places that the Tigers should move Castellanos off third base again and into the outfield for good. I think this would be too quick of a hook for the youngster. Given how they jerked him around a bit, I think it best to let him settle in at the spot and give it more time for him to develop defensively. The move can happen down the road should it become completely unavoidable.
At the plate, I suspect we will see a solid step forward in 2015 with improved pitch recognition as he sees more and more MLB pitching. As he fills out physically into his mid 20s we should also see his power production take a noticeable move forward.
The potential is there for Castellanos to be a middle-of-the-order presence in Detroit. Patience can be hard but in this instance, the talent level is likely worth the wait.