Nick Castellanos played 148 of the 162 games at third base for the Detroit Tigers in his 2014 rookie season. He logged 578 plate appearances, which is more than all but two rookies in the American League. At the plate, he batted .259 with 11 home runs, 66 RBI, and an on-base percentage of .306. The Tigers are happy enough with their third baseman’s production at the plate, for a rookie, although his offensive numbers come in below the league average.
Defensively, there is work to do. A lot of work. Castellanos graded out as the worst fielding third baseman in the major leagues by a wide margin. According to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) he cost the team 30 runs defensively. According to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) the damage was 18.4 runs. The second-worst numbers in the majors for a third baseman were -14 and -10.7, respectively.
Much was requested of Castellanos in his first season in the majors. He was asked to move back to a position that he had not played in a year and a half, one he was still learning before he was moved to the outfield in the minor leagues. On top of that, he was taking the position that had recently been occupied by Miguel Cabrera, the two-time American League Most Valuable Player and best hitter in the world. That’s a tall order for a rookie.
Scouts agree that Castellanos will hit at the major league level. That is his strength. Whether he can play defense well enough to justify his place in the lineup is still up for debate. There were two areas where he failed miserably. First, he botched too many plays where the ball was hit right at him. His 10 fielding errors were second-most at third base, behind the Royals’ Mike Moustakas.
Of greater concern, his range was almost non-existent. Revised Zone Rating (RZR) calculates the percentage of balls hit into a player’s "zone" that are converted into outs. The zone is defined as the area where at least half of all balls hit in the majors are converted to outs. Castellanos had an RZR of just .587. The second-worst RZR in the American League was .653. That's too many outs to give away.
There are reasons to be optimistic about improvement. Castellanos only made five throwing errors, which is the third-lowest total in the league among regular third basemen. Once he fielded the ball, he rarely threw it away. On the fielding errors, he just needs to handle the plays that most fielders make routinely. This usually comes with repetition.
The greater concern is that Castellanos can do very little to improve his range in the field. What kills his numbers, more than anything, are the plays that he doesn't make. The Tigers can minimize the damage by playing him closer to the line, taking away more doubles and conceding more singles through the hole. But while he hasn’t played third base all his life -— he was a shortstop in high school before being drafted by Detroit -— he has played there long enough to be able to read plays and get a good jump on the ball. Castellanos will likely always have limited range.
One alternative for the Tigers would be to move Castellanos to the outfield, where the team desperately needs someone to play a corner position who can hit somewhat. If he were moved to left field, J.D. Martinez could slide over to right field, and Rajai Davis could be used in a platoon with Anthony Gose in center field. Davis should not bat against right-handed pitchers, and Gose should not bat against left-handers. Castellanos actually showed better splits against right-handed pitchers than he did against southpaws in 2014.
Castellanos was shifted to the outfield when the Tigers acquired Prince Fielder and moved Miguel Cabrera to third base. Being the top prospect in the organization, his path to the major leagues appeared to be blocked as long as he was stuck on third base. He played 51 games in right field at Double-A Erie in 2012, making two errors with three assists. In 2013, he was promoted to Triple-A Toledo, where he played 130 games in left field, making three errors with eight assists.
Scouting reports indicated that Castellanos was still a work in progress as an outfielder when he was moved back to third base, this time in the major leagues in 2014. He would not be the ideal solution to the Tigers’ outfield dilemma, and as quickly as they filled the void in the outfield. He can't be much worse than Davis, but they’d be blowing a hole in their infield, at third base.
A corner outfielder is generally easier to come by than a third baseman. Ideally, the Tigers will acquire a left-handed hitting corner outfielder who can catch the ball and get on-base often enough to score some runs batting in one of the top two spots in the batting order. Castellanos is not that player.
If the Tigers don’t believe that Castellanos is a long-term solution at third base, perhaps their best option would be to trade him. He should still have plenty of value, as an inexpensive 22-year-old player with a bright future at least as a hitter in the major leagues, and five years of club control remaining. It would have to be one of a series of moves that involved filling the void at third base, and adding another player who could make a major contribution immediately.
The most likely scenario is that the Tigers will stick with Castellanos at third base, expect him to improve at the plate, and hope he will improve on the field. To fix the outfield, they can acquire a bona fide outfielder who will fill the needs they have at the top of the batting order.
What do you think the Tigers should do with Nick Castellanos?