As the Detroit Tigers navigated their way through a slog of a 2019 season, fans kept a close eye on the minor leagues to see how the team’s prospects were progressing. There weren’t many players ready for major league action last summer, save for a couple. Catcher Jake Rogers got the call to the majors in late July, not long after his bat had rebounded from a slow start at Triple-A Toledo.
Next — or perhaps first — on the list was shortstop Willi Castro. We openly wondered in late May when Castro would get the call, and were left waiting for a few months after that. The 22-year-old infielder had to wait until late August for his promotion, which finally ended a long summer of wondering just when the Tigers would call up one of their top performers in the minor leagues.
Turns out he might not have been quite ready. Castro hit just .230/.284/.340 with one home run in 110 plate appearances for the Tigers, and struck out in over 30 percent of his plate appearances. His defensive woes — possibly the reason his promotion was delayed in the first place — also continued, as he committed four errors in 30 games, bringing his season-long total (across two levels) to 26.
A player’s first taste of major league action isn’t always pretty, though, and Castro is entering his age-23 season in 2020. Can he shake off the rough start and take a step (or two) forward this year?
Castro signed with Cleveland as an amateur free agent back in 2013. He posted subpar offensive numbers in his first few seasons in the minor leagues, but took a step forward in 2017, hitting .290/.337/.424 in a full season with High-A Lynchburg. His numbers fell back somewhat the following year, but that did not deter general manager Al Avila and the Tigers, who picked up Castro in a deadline deal with Cleveland for Leonys Martin.
Following the trade, Castro had arguably his best month as a professional; he hit .324/.366/.562 with 15 extra-base hits in 26 games for Double-A Erie to close out the year. He landed at No. 12 on our preseason prospect rankings heading into 2019, and had a banger of a year at the plate, with an .833 OPS and plenty of extra-base power from both sides of dish. As mentioned previously, he was called up to Detroit for the final month of the season, where things did not go so well.
Castro doesn’t have any particularly loud tools, but is a well-rounded player who does everything pretty well. MLB Pipeline grades four of his five tools at average (50) or better, with only his below-average power lagging behind. He has shown some feel for hitting, with good bat control from both sides of the plate, and enough thump for a fair amount of gap power — he hit 28 doubles and eight triples in 119 games at Toledo last year.
MLB Pipeline gave his hit tool a 50 grade, and praised his ability to truly hit as both a lefty and righty.
Castro is unique in the sense that he’s a switch-hitter who produces similar splits. He knows how to get the barrel to the ball and makes line-drive contact from both sides of the plate. He’s begun to tap into some power as he’s filled out physically, and given his remaining projection, double-digit home run totals seem like a possibility. While his approach continues to be highly aggressive, his strikeout and walk rates have held steady during his climb through the Minors.
More of Castro’s power comes from the left side, where he profiles as a fringe-average power hitter. He produced similar batting averages and on-base percentages from both sides of the plate last year, but 10 of his 12 home runs and nearly all of his triples came against right-handed pitching.
Castro’s offensive profile is also helped by his above-average speed. He isn’t a game-changing runner, but stole 17 bases in 21 attempts at Triple-A last year, and has the wheels to turn a few singles into doubles (or doubles into triples) over the course of the season. He has stolen a relatively high percentage of bases for a young minor leaguer, but MLB Pipeline noted that he “still has gains to make in his efficiency” when running the bases.
Defensively, Castro is an above-average fielder with a plus arm. He profiles as an average defender at short, but one that certainly has the chops to stick there for a while. If the Tigers find a solution at short, Castro could move elsewhere on the infield, including second base, though his bat probably would not hold up to provide enough value at the position.
While Castro does a lot of things well, he may not do them well enough to stick as a starter at the major league level. He has hit well in his seven months of game action in the Tigers system, but saw his numbers — average, power, plate discipline, you name it — fall off a cliff when he was promoted to the major leagues. We should expect some improvement, of course, but Castro’s profile doesn’t leave him a lot of room for error offensively. He doesn’t walk much, and doesn’t possess the type of power we are seeing out of shortstops these days.
Castro is also prone to defensive lapses, resulting in high error counts. He has committed at least 22 errors in three of the past four seasons, and had four more miscues in his 30 games with the Tigers last fall. Normally, we wouldn’t worry about high error totals in the lower minors — if anything, those are almost a positive because it means the player has the range to get to a lot of balls — but Castro’s promotion last summer was delayed in part due to his defensive issues. He will need to clean things up on that end as he develops.
Overall, it’s a profile that belies his current position as potential Shortstop of the Future. The Tigers don’t have many surefire shortstops sitting behind Castro in their minor league system, and few impact bats to speak of at any position. Castro profiles as more of a 45 Future Value (FV) player, or a second-division regular. He may be a fine shortstop who puts up 2 WAR a year or so, which has value. But his shortcomings — being a jack of all trades but a master of none, so to speak — mean he likely won’t be the kind of player that can take the Tigers to the next level in their rebuild. There is a chance he progresses; he is still only 22, and already on the doorstep of the major leagues, but based on what we have seen so far, it would be a bit of a surprise.
Projected team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
Barring an absolutely bonkers spring (along with potentially an injury or two), it seems like Castro will start the year back in Toledo. He put up strong numbers in the International League last year, but looked lost enough in a handful of major league at-bats that a bit more fine-tuning in the minors could do him some good. Ideally, he forces his way back to the majors with a hot start for the Mud Hens, with the best case scenario being that he improves enough on both sides of the ball to earn himself a starting job. If we are talking about Castro as a lock at either shortstop or second base at this time next year, that’s a major victory for him and the Tigers.