The Detroit Tigers have a shortage of players on their roster who contribute without costing the club a multi-million dollar contract. Third baseman Nick Castellanos is one of the few starting players who is earning near the minimum major league salary, so it sure would be nice if he could fulfill some of the expectations that the club had for him when they made him their top overall selection in the 2010 draft out of Archbishop McCarthy High School in Florida.
To be fair, the Tigers did not have a regular first round selection in the 2010 draft, but they had a supplemental first round pick (No. 44 overall) and they used that to take Castellanos. They paid him a bonus of $3.45 million, which was the highest bonus paid to a non-first round selection, convincing the young infielder to forget about his commitment to attend the University of Miami and join the Tigers organization instead. Three years later, Castellanos was installed as the starting third baseman in Detroit, a position that he had not played in over a year and a half.
Castellanos struggled in his rookie season at the plate while his defense was an even bigger problem. He had to show improvement, and he did just that in 2015. Here is a look at his offensive numbers for 2014, with first and second half splits in 2015.
|1st half 2015||.243||.287||.372||.659||.285||13th||-0.7|
|2nd half 2015||.269||.322||.478||.800||.343||t 9th||+0.7|
As we can see from these numbers, Castellanos didn't show any improvement at the plate during the first half of the 2015 season, but his production increased significantly in the second half. He went from being the second least valuable third baseman in the American League to just below average. If he could put two halves together like he played after the All-Star break, he could actually be an asset to the team, considering his salary. He still struck out 27 percent of his plate appearances in the second half of the season, so there is the room for improvement.
Defense has been a big concern with Castellanos. In the field, he was historically bad as he converted just 59 percent of the plays hit into the third base zone into outs in 2014. That is the lowest percentage posted by any regular third baseman in the major leagues in this century. Too many balls hit to the third base zone resulted in plays not being made, and that needed to improve.
RZR is Revised Zone Rating -- the percentage of balls hit to the third base zone that are converted to outs. The zone is the same for every third baseman with the outer limits being where 50 percent of all balls are converted to outs in the major leagues. Here, Castellanos is still as bad as anyone in the league, but not by the huge margin that he was in 2014. He also increased his out of zone plays by 58 percent, despite playing fewer innings in 2015.
Defensive Runs Saved is the metric used by Bill James' Fielding Bible, and UZR/150 is FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating projected over 150 games. By these measures, Castellanos cut the runs allowed vs average from 30 to 9 according to DRS and from 19 to 11 by UZR. His defense is still below league average, but he is much closer to the pack than he was in his rookie season.
On the plus side, Castellanos made just 12 errors, reducing his fielding errors from 10 to nine and his throwing errors from five to just three for the season. No other third baseman played as many innings and made so few throwing errors, which tend to be two-base errors. He makes smart decisions on when to throw -- or when not to try to make a throw.
Castellanos is never going to be a Gold Glove caliber infielder. He doesn't pick up the ball quickly enough to make even an average number of plays at the hot corner. Perhaps with more repetition, he will improve enough to the point where his defense will not be a liability.
This will likely get some disagreement. Consider how last year went, though. Castellanos was the worst third baseman in all of baseball and his offense struggled at times. He's no longer the worst third baseman in the league and his offense picked up after sitting June 20-22 because of a frustrating and prolonged slump where he'd hit just four homers. He quit trying too hard and went on a tear for much of the rest of the year. Eleven of his 15 homers came after that date. He made several plays defensively that he would've never made before and has showed continuous signs of improvement both on defense and at the plate.
Expectations for 2016
Offensively, the .343 wOBA and .800 OPS that Castellanos posted in the second half of the 2015 season would have ranked fourth in the American League among third basemen had he been able to do that for a full season. He is not a good base runner or a plus defender, so he will need to produce at the plate, which he started to do after the All-Star break. For now, Castellanos at age 23 would provide decent value putting up those kinds of numbers at the salary that he is making. He has another season before he will be eligible for arbitration, and he will need to increase his production to justify an increased salary.