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The Tigers rookie position players have offered glimpses of their potential

It’s not a very inspiring group, but the rookie hitters have had their moments this season.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Way back in early March, a point that feels much more than six months in the past, the Tigers were expected to have some reinforcements for the pitching staff coming from the farm this season, but there weren’t many good candidates to boost the offense in case of injury. So it’s a small victory that the Tigers young hitters have done as well as they have.

Of the group of five rookie position players, only Willi Castro and Isaac Paredes have received a notable amount of playing time. With 30 and 26 games played respectively, this still isn’t much of a sample. But each has given a glimpse of their relative strengths and weaknesses, allowing a look at a possible future left side of the Tigers’ infield.

One of the many, many problematic features to this short 2020 season is the lack of information it’s provided about many players. Every normal year features plenty of players who get off to a hot start and then fade in the summer months. The reverse also happens with regularity. This year, there isn’t enough time to let things play out, and so we’re left to try to anticipate the trajectory of their actual production.

Willi Castro 2020

2020 G PA wRC+ K% BB% Avg EV Max EV ISO BABIP
2020 G PA wRC+ K% BB% Avg EV Max EV ISO BABIP
Castro 31 119 140 29.4 5 85.5 109.4 0.202 0.437

None of the Tigers prospects have raised their stock more than shortstop Willi Castro. While Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Isaac Paredes were more heralded, the 23-year-old, acquired from Cleveland for Leonys Martin in 2018, has stolen the show with an impressive performance since his call to Detroit on August 12th. He did have the advantage of a 30-game tryout late in the 2019 season, but retained his rookie eligibility by not reaching 130 at-bats.

Castro announced himself with a three hit performance, including a home run, in his season debut against the White Sox. He hasn’t stopped hitting since. Among all shortstops with at least 100 plate appearances this year, Castro is seventh best in terms of wRC+. He has five home runs, roughly a 25 home run pace in a normal season, and he’s kept a shaky Tigers’ offense from falling apart hitting second most days.

Pretty good for a decent but relatively unheralded infield prospect who hadn’t shown too much power in his progression through the minor leagues. But yes, here we are at the part where we burst your bubble. You knew it was coming.

The problem is the many glaring signs that a steep falloff in production is coming. Castro’s swinging strike rate is currently sitting at 15.0 percent against a league average of 11.4 percent. Add a mediocre strikeout-to-walk ratio, and an enormous batting average on balls in play, and it’s clear he can’t maintain this production without improvement in those numbers.

Despite the nice home run total, Castro also ranks near the bottom of that same list of shortstops in terms of average exit velocity off the bat. He looks like he’s gotten stronger over the past year, and he has occasionally flashed average or better power, but he’s not going to slug his way out of a profile that includes a four percent walk rate, and a 30 percent strikeout rate as a left-handed hitter, which is the side his power comes from.

This isn’t to discount some really nice work from Castro either. As a prospect, he was thought to have an outside chance to provide average production at the plate while playing solid shortstop, but more likely a utility infielder off the bench. He wasn’t a top 100 type prospect, so we can still feel good about his success this year. You just may want to wait a bit before buying the jersey.

The other issue with Castro, is that he continues to display the same flaws at shortstop that he has in the minor leagues. He has three throwing errors in 31 games, and has cost the Tigers nine runs defensively in 61 games between the 2019-2020 seasons. The organization has been touting his defensive work and improvements for a while now, but on the field things have proven to be largely unchanged. The Tigers seem pretty stubborn about this one, so he’ll probably be playing shortstop next year in some capacity, but ultimately, the Tigers and their new manager in 2021 may want to try him elsewhere on the field.

There’s no reason to take all this as discouraging news either. Projection systems generally back Castro’s true performance level this year as just slightly below average. With some experienced gained and another offseason to get stronger, he may come out next year and put to rest some of these concerns. For now, it’s been fun watching him rake, and we’ll hope he can take another step forward in his discipline and contact against major league pitching next season.

Right now, through 61 games in the major leagues, Castro holds a career .282/.326/.440 triple slash, and a 103 wRC+. That’s about as much as you could reasonably ask for next season. Hope for more, but don’t expect it.

Isaac Paredes 2020

2020 G PA wRC+ K% BB% Avg EV Max EV ISO BABIP
2020 G PA wRC+ K% BB% Avg EV Max EV ISO BABIP
Paredes 27 81 50 23.5 11.1 86.2 106.4 0.093 0.255

Entering the season ranked the Tigers sixth best prospect by multiple outlets, Isaac Paredes is the one who arrived in August with more name recognition. However, he’s also two years younger than Castro and less experienced, arriving in the majors on August 18th without a single plate appearance above the Double-A level. The plate discipline that made him a pretty interesting prospect as a hitter has been in evidence, but so have the flaws that have lingered in his game since arriving in the Tigers’ organization in August 2017.

Unlike Castro, Paredes has a very disciplined approach. Possibly too disciplined at times, as he’s been rung up on a number of very close strike three calls this season. His swinging strike rate is a sterling 6.3 percent, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is still very solid despite a strikeout rate twice as high as his Double-A numbers in 2019.

The question is power, and unfortunately it hasn’t made its presence felt in Paredes game much this season. A lack of power, and a disturbing tendency to roll his top hand over and ground out on pitches he should drive has been a steady feature of his game since coming over to Detroit from the Cubs in 2017 as a teenager.

Paredes can’t run well, and his defensive ability is average at best, so he’s got to mash to stay in the lineup. A high average spray hitter who doesn’t produce good power numbers has little place in the game nowadays unless the player is an elite defender. The Tigers had Paredes working on going the other way throughout the 2019 season, both to help him use the whole field, but presumably also as a way of helping him feel a better bat path and stop getting caught out front and casting the bat with his top hand. So far that work hasn’t produced much in the way of results.

Jumping straight to the majors this year was a fairly substantial leap for him, but ultimately this is for the best despite some of his struggles. Paredes really wasn’t challenged much at any level of the minors and could produce simply by drawing walks and spraying singles around. A lack of development—yes this is a running theme for the Tigers—in his three years with the organization made it imperative that he take his lumps in the majors. Here’s hoping he is taking careful notes on Miguel Cabrera’s hand path, learning to keep the barrel in the zone and on plane more effectively, and prepared to make some needed adjustments.

The contact is plentiful, but until he’s more of a power threat, Paredes isn’t going to have much chance of reaching his ceiling as a solid everyday player at the big league level. There’s no way to predict whether he can adjust his mechanics and succeed, but the 2021 season is going to be a big one for him to prove he can produce as a third or potentially a second baseman in the majors. He’s still only 21 years old, so give it time to play out.

Who’s in the Tigers plans for 2021?

The Tigers do have a few other rookie position players getting a look as well. Despite a major bout with COVID-19 in July, Daz Cameron has shown his wheels, and some ability to drive the ball in his short look at the major league level. Derek Hill and Sergio Alcantara have debuted too, but largely as defensive replacements. Neither have gotten enough at-bats to take much away from their work, but it’s pretty clear that both are destined to be bench players at best.

Over the season’s final few games, these impressions aren’t going to change much, but it would be nice to see these guys end the season on a good note. With only a brief look this year, even Castro and Paredes’ future isn’t very clear. Castro is going to see full-time duty in 2021, presumably, and we’ll see how well he can stave off the regression monster. Paredes will take what he learned and put in some offseason work before trying to win a spot in the spring. Otherwise he’ll get some needed time at Toledo to work on his swing and approach. Cameron should see plenty of playing time in the majors next year as well, but will be fighting for playing time the third spot behind Victor Reyes and JaCoby Jones.

The Detroit Tigers are still quite a long ways from having the multiple impact bats they need to turn the franchise around, but with a little luck, they’ve got at least one future starting contributor here.