Before the season started, the general consensus was that if Nick Castellanos could improve defensively, he'd be a solid regular. He was terrible at the hot corner by the eye test, and worse than Miguel Cabrera two years ago by advanced analytics.
No one questioned his bat.
This was the player that was billed as having the best hit tool in the minors before breaking camp as the starting third baseman a year ago. This was the player that hit line drives in almost 30 percent of his plate appearances a year ago.
Yet, over a quarter of the way through the regular season, he's been the squad's worst uninjured regular.
The thing is, despite a negative-21 run differential and 15-18 record after starting the season 11-2, the Tigers' lineup is actually deep. Until recently the team regularly hit Jose Iglesias -- he of the .388 OBP and 1.4 WAR (per Fangraphs) -- ninth. Preseason question mark Anthony Gose has surpassed all expectations. Even rookie James McCann has produced better than league average offense while garnering praise of his defense.
Although they aren't setting the world on fire, J.D. Martinez and Yoenis Cespedes are both providing above league average offense as well. It's unrealistic to think that the Tigers could make an improvement in the corner outfield.
Ian Kinsler isn't going anywhere with his 1.6 WAR and $16 million salary.
And Detroit would have some trouble improving at first base on the days that Hernan Perez isn't trotting out there.
Assuming Victor Martinez will eventually regain his health, the only spot the Tigers can realistically improve at is third base.
The main red flag with Castellanos is his 24.6 percent strikeout rate, which hasn't improved at all since a year ago. It's concerning because strikeout and walk rates are one of the first statistics to stabilize at the start of a season.
In other words, if Castellanos had a low average due to a 15 percent strikeout rate and a low batting average on balls in play, there'd be reason to expect him to turn it around. But with his high strikeout rate, unimpressive walk rate, and .293 BABIP, there's no reason to expect dramatic improvement.
And when he's not striking out, he's making less hard contact than he did last year. Baseball Info Solutions tracks whether balls are hit with soft, medium, or hard speed, and Castellanos' hard hit percentage is down 2.7 percent from last year.
Additionally, his groundball percentage is up, his infield fly ball percentage is up, and his line drive percentage is down a shocking 8 percent.
So what can the Tigers do? Short of magically get Castellanos to play to his potential, they can target a utility player to push Castellanos for playing time.
The player that has become synonymous with utility over the last few years has been Ben Zobrist (well, besides Don Kelly). A Zobrist-type player would be able to play the corner outfield while Victor Martinez is out (pushing J.D. Martinez to DH) while occasionally spelling Castellanos at third. When Martinez comes back, if Castellanos is still putting up replacement-level numbers, the utility player could take the bulk of the playing time at third, but if Castellanos turned it around, he would be theoretically versatile enough to to receive regular playing time all over.
Besides Zobrist himself, two players come to mind that would fit this description: the Dodgers' Alex Guerrero and Justin Turner. Los Angeles is reportedly looking to acquire starting pitching since injuries have depleted their starting pitching and would be theoretically willing to part either Guerrero or Turner in a three-team deal since they would still have either Guerrero or Turner to go along with Hector Olivera, who is looking to join the team within a month.
Right now, there's no one on the team that can push Castellanos for playing time. Acquiring a Zobrist or Guerrero would replace Perez, take at-bats from Tyler Collins right now, and ensure against Castellanos in the future.
After racking up -0.5 fWAR a year ago, Castellanos sits at -0.2 right now. In short, he hasn't been good enough for a team with a World Series window that is pried open year after year at the expense of the farm system. He deserves to be the target of both fans' ire and the front office's attention.