While it is hard to find a lot of positives at this point in general manager Al Avila’s tenure, there is one area where he and his staff have consistently done well. When this Detroit Tigers front office makes a short-term veteran acquisition, they usually get it right. So things went with the signing of center fielder Leonys Martin in 2018. Martin rebounded to post one of the best seasons of his career, and the Tigers were able to flip him to the Cleveland Indians in July for a potential shortstop of the future, Willi Castro.
The Tigers have three solid options at shortstop in the upper minors, and a quick look at them quickly makes one wish their strengths could be combined. Isaac Paredes profiles as a potential middle-of-the-order power bat, but doesn’t have the range to play even average shortstop in the major leagues. Sergio Alcantara may pack the best glove and arm combination in the entire farm system, but just doesn’t have the bat speed to ever hit major league pitching at an acceptable level. Finally, we come to Castro, who is the best all-around package of the three, but lacks any eye-popping tools.
Castro was originally signed by the Indians as a 16 year old out of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico back in 2013. He put his time in playing in the rookie ball leagues until reaching full season A-ball in 2016. Since that point, his progress has been steady, advancing a level each season, though his offensive results have been decidedly mixed.
In 2018, Castro graduated to Double-A, and the real test got underway. The developing power he flashed at Advanced-A was nowhere in sight, and he posted a weak line of .245/.303/.350 for the Akron Rubberducks in the Eastern League. The trade, and his subsequent move to Erie, seemed to spark him, as Castro racked up 15 extra-base hits in just 26 games, including four home runs. The outburst was enough to get him to Triple-A Toledo for a cameo late in the season.
There are a lot of quality tools in Castro’s kit, and his lack of weaknesses make him the best bet of any of the Tigers’ shortstop prospects to stick at the position in the majors. There is also some physical projection remaining, as Castro measures 6’1 and 175 pounds, and has room to add muscle to his frame without sacrificing his athleticism. He has the potential to hit for average and some power from either side of the plate. In all, there is a lot for the Tigers development staff to work with here.
Castro isn’t a plus shortstop defensively, but the whole may prove better than the sum of its parts in his case. He has very good hands and footwork, and an accurate arm that helps make up for the fact that his arm strength is average, or slightly above. He also has enough speed to show above-average range. Castro is generally graded as an above-average defender; he shouldn’t have too much trouble playing at least average defense in the major leagues with a little more refinement. He isn’t the kind of wizard who can float mediocre offensive production through stellar defense value, however.
Castro also has at least a solid, developing hit tool, which FanGraphs projects to a future above-average ceiling. He has reasonably good hand-eye coordination and can get the barrel to the ball effectively even when he is somewhat fooled. His hands will get a little busy, particularly when batting right-handed, but he seemed to be consciously trying to quiet things down once coming over to the SeaWolves last year. His swing is compact from either side, generally without major splits, and he keeps the barrel in the zone fairly well. He is capable of generating a lot of contact and spraying line drives to both fields with good gap power.
If there’s a fly in the ointment where Castro is concerned, it lies in his approach at the plate. Castro is very aggressive, swinging early in counts and failing to control the strike zone. He is still learning to recognize spin, and is vulnerable to breaking balls, in particular. He can bail himself out with quick hands at times, but there is still too much swing and miss present to depend on his hand-eye coordination alone.
When he isn’t seeing the ball well, Castro can quickly devolve into a slap hitter. This isn’t abnormal for a 21-year-old, but his raw power advantage over a player like Sergio Alcantara will be negated if his plate discipline and pitch recognition don’t continue to progress. The hope is that Castro can take another step in this regard, and also add a little more muscle, combining for a boost in power that would carry him to the majors with aplomb.
Currently, he looks like a solid stopgap option at the shortstop position, but not quite a player you can build around. At a time when seemingly every contender has a good defensive shortstop who can crack 20-plus home runs per season, Castro is going to need to max out his raw power to have a long career as a starting shortstop.
The tools and raw ingredients are there, but overall the Tigers don’t have much of a track record of improving plate discipline in their minor league charges. They are going to have to figure that out to get the most out of their current “shortstop of the future.” Still, Castro is probably the best combination of tools the Tigers have had at the shortstop position since Willy Adames. None are strong enough to carry him on their own, but the lack of a major weakness makes it likely that he will earn himself plenty of opportunities until a younger option — say, Wenceel Perez — arrives on the scene to challenge him.
Projected 2019 Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
Castro finished the 2018 campaign with the Hens, so it’s an easy call to place him there for the majority of the 2019 season. The Tigers seem particularly pleased with Castro, and appear to view him as their best bet for finding a long-term solution at shortstop. Until Wenceel Perez moves up a few levels — or another option appears via trade or through the draft — Castro should remain the priority at the shortstop position. He is already on the Tigers’ 40-man roster, so don’t be surprised to see him up as an injury replacement, or at least a late season call-up this season.