Now that the trade deadline has passed, the Detroit Tigers find themselves sitting on a fresh new crop of infield talent. This talent was badly needed too, as prior to the J.D. Martinez trade, the highest infield prospect the Tigers had was a toss up between A.J. Simcox and Harold Castro, the shortstop and second baseman respectively at Double-A Erie. Neither of these two players are listed among the Tigers top 30 prospects by MLB.com after the midseason and trade update.
In fact, four of the five new arrivals now rank in the Tigers top 30, those being 3B/1B Jeimer Candelario (#3), SS Isaac Paredes (#8), 3B/SS Dawel Lugo (#14), and SS Sergio Alcantara (#23). At one time the Tigers farm system boasted a deep crop of infield talent, with the likes of Eugenio Suarez, Willy Adames, Devon Travis, Hernan Perez, Dixon Machado, Domingo Leyba, and their brightest star, Nicholas Castellanos.
Coming into 2017, things looked bright for the young Castellanos. He was coming off a breakout season that saw him post a 122 OPS+ after two full sub-100 seasons. He was also lighter, quicker, and impressed quite a few people with his fielding and base running in spring training. He looked ready to take the next step and assert himself as the Tigers future third baseman.
Except it never happened, at least not defensively.
He ran into some bad luck to start the year, leading the league in hard hit percentage but not getting rewarded for his hard contact. As the numbers stabilized, he currently owns an OPS+ of 100, though he has hit 128 over the last two months, showing his bat has lived up to the billing.
Defensively, though, he has regressed. His 2014 season ranks as one of the worst full seasons for a qualified third baseman since they started measuring defensive stats in 2002. While he was able to pull things together in 2015 and 2016, his 2017 is trending to be markedly worse. It is not as bad as 2014 but still it’s a definite step backwards from the progress he was making. As he enters his prime years, he’s not likely to gain any fleetness of foot or quickness of reaction at the hot corner, something not lost on the Tigers front office as they approached this year’s trade deadline.
tigers sought 3b (candelario). nick castellanos has taken a step back defensively after progress last year.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) July 31, 2017
Which brings us to the big question: just what should the Tigers do with Castellanos?
Ian Kinsler could be a free agent after this season, though it is likely the Tigers will pick up his very affordable 2018 option and look to trade him. Jose Iglesias will be in his final year of arbitration before hitting free agency in 2019. Clearly the Tigers will be hoping to fill these positions with the talent they just brought in. But with several of their acquisitions profiling at third base or shortstop, Nicholas will be feeling the pressure.
Castellanos just went through his first arbitration season and has two years remaining before he’s eligible for free agency, so he is still very much in the long-term plans of the Tigers at this time. Obviously, not every prospect will turn into a major league regular. There will likely be some that never make it. Still, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Tigers develop one or two everyday players out of this new group.
Candelario is the closest to the majors, having gotten cups of coffee with the Cubs each of the last two years. His bat does not have quite the upside as Castellanos’ but he’s been hitting quite well in Triple-A this year and should be ready to step into a full time role next year.
Defensively, Candelario is nothing special at third base, but he’s likely much better than Castellanos. It’s hard to see the Tigers keeping Nicholas at third next year, as they will almost assuredly want to try Candelario there. If Candelario cannot keep up at third, he profiles as an above average defender at first, though that’s unlikely to happen soon due to Victor Martinez playing the final year of his contract as the designated hitter and some guy named Miguel Cabrera playing first in the meantime.
Next closest is Dawel Lugo. Originally a shortstop, he was transitioned to third base by the Diamondbacks in 2016 and has proven himself more than capable there. In his 13 games since joining the Tigers organization in Double-A Erie, he has played 12 games at third base and just one at shortstop. He has never played second base, but given the presence of Candelario, it would not be surprising the see the Tigers perhaps try him out there to see if he can handle it.
After Lugo, the next closest is Alcantara. He is described by MLB.com as a “no-doubt-about-it shortstop” defensively, but is very light-hitting and probably projects very similar to Dixon Machado. Whatever he is able to hit will define his future as either an everyday player or a utility bench player, similar to Andrew Romine. He’s in A-ball right now, so it will be a couple years before he’s in the majors.
The last two players acquired by the Tigers, Isaac Parades, and Jose King are 18 years old and far from the majors at this point. It is worth nothing that while both play shortstop now, scouts think both are destined for other positions. Parades is likely to end up at third base (notice a theme?) or possibly second base, and King will likely convert to second base due to a fringey arm.
No matter how you slice it or pick who develops and who doesn’t, the odds and the stats are both against Castellanos remaining at third base in the future.
There is some talk that the Tigers could try him out in right field, but given his short-lived adventure in left field in 2014 and general defensive questions, I’m not going to hold my breath that this pans out. I could be wrong, though. Castellanos has said that he is more comfortable in right field than left field because he reads the ball better that way. Plus, the position does not rely as heavily on quick first step reactions and he is leaner now and has had more practice and drills in the offseason. He might make it work.
If this is the plan , the Tigers should start breaking him into games in right field immediately. Leaving him to play poorly at a position he will not be manning next year serves little purpose.
With the addition of Candelario, and maybe Lugo down the road, Tigers will consider moving Nick Castellanos to RF. Could also be dealt.— Lynn G. Henning (@Lynn_Henning) July 31, 2017
Long term, Castellanos’ best hope to remain in the everyday lineup with the Tigers should be at first base or designated hitter, in a swap role with Miguel Cabrera. Castellanos has plenty of offense to hold down a respectable first base job if he keeps up his 120+ OPS numbers. League average OPS+ for first basemen in the last 17 years is about 110-115 so he would be better than average if this is the base level he is capable of hitting.
Even so, Castellanos is not totally in the clear here either, as the Tigers have Christin Stewart knocking home runs out of the park in Double-A. While he is being given a chance to show he can play in the field, if the Tigers are putting a focus on defense, having him in the field at any position is a liability. There is no need to rush Stewart and we may not see him until late 2018 for a brief call-up, but its an interesting wrinkle to keep an eye on.
The deadline deals are done and the Tigers have signaled they intend to try and revamp their infield arrangement for their next window of contention. They have made it clear they are not willing to live with the mediocre defense at third, despite the offense, in a game where pitching and defense are prized more than ever.
The remainder of 2017 and 2018 will tell us how this will sort itself out. There are multiple ways this could unfold but one thing is for sure: Castellanos suddenly finds himself with a uncertain future and less job security, despite his offensive production.