As the Opening Day active roster starts to take shape, the Detroit Tigers have two players with similar skillsets who could be fighting against each other for one of the final spots. They also have similar names.
That’s right, folks, we got a real heavyweight matchup in Castro vs. Castro going on this spring training. Harold Castro and Willi Castro have both been on the Tigers roster for the last few years, with the former making his MLB debut in 2018 and the latter in 2019, and both primarily play the middle infield positions and have been getting work in the outfield to expand their utility roles. Though MLB rosters have been expanded to 28 to start the season, with multiple prospects knocking on the door in Detroit, one of Willi or Harold Castro could find themselves the odd man out.
Harold Castro was signed as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela in 2010 and spent eight years in the minor league system before making his debut in 2018. Primarily a shortstop, he played all but right field and catcher last season. Yes, he even pitched. His defense graded out as poorly at shortstop by defensive runs saved (DRS) but was otherwise solid at all infield positions and he was just a touch negative in the outfield, though that sample was too small to be at all meaningful.
Affectionately dubbed “Hittin’ Harold” by Bally Sports’ Jack Morris, he’s known for his high contact rate which came in handy for a few clutch knocks in 2021. Over 339 plate appearances, he hit for a .283 batting average, but that’s a largely empty number given that he only got on base at a .310 clip and slugged .359. His career 3.6% walk rate leaves a lot to be desired, as does his career 84 wRC+.
Willi Castro was acquired via trade from Cleveland for Leonys Martín in the summer of 2018, and after a breakout campaign in the shortened 2020 season, he completely lost his bat last year. Over the course of 125 games in 2021, he only managed to slash .220/.273/.351 with a paltry 5.1% walk rate and 69 wRC+ — decidedly NOT nice. Breaking camp as the starting shortstop, Willi Castro struggled right out of the gate not only on the offensive end but also on defense. In only 156 innings at shortstop, he graded out with -2 defensive runs saved and -1.6 UZR. The struggles continued in his move to second base, grading out negatively there as well. It’s quite possible his defensive struggles and AJ Hinch’s quick hook from the shortstop position did his head in just a bit, affecting his offensive performance as well.
Although Harold graded out as a better overall hitter last season, Willi’s bat possesses much more power, and when he’s right, he can be a tough out. Over 140 plate appearances in 2020, Willi was worth a robust 152 wRC+ with 6 home runs. Harold’s 2020 was impressive as well, worth 135 wRC+ despite no home runs over only 54 plate appearances. Still, as they were more exposed to major league pitchers over a much longer season, both struggled to recreate their success.
Having both Castros in the lineup was fine for the last couple of seasons as the Tigers were content with settling for a high draft pick as opposed to a high ceiling, but as expectations for the team change, personnel is bound to as well. The acquisition of Javier Báez shores up the shortstop position and Jonathan Schoop looks like he’s destined to be back at second base due to the emergence of top prospect Spencer Torkelson at first. In the outfield, Akil Baddoo and Robbie Grossman are all but guaranteed starting spots at the corners, while Riley Greene is presumed to start in center with Derek Hill and Victor Reyes battling for a backup spot. That puts both Harold and Willi Castro in the fight for a utility infielder role.
As mentioned previously, MLB rosters will be set at 28 spots to start the season, so there’s a good chance that both players head north with the big club. However, once those spots are whittled down to 26 on May 1, one of them will most likely be on the chopping block. While neither are future All Stars, both have a chance to make an impact on the team. The role of utility man has been played by some living legends over the last ten years in Diamond Don Kelly and All-Nine Andrew Romine. It’s tough to live up to the legacy that those two left behind — is my sarcasm font turned on? — but a player who can come off the bench every couple of games to play multiple and knock a few hits is someone that every team needs.
However, circumstances are obviously different now with bona fide starters at every position. This is no longer the Ron Gardenhire tryout session circa 2018-2020. Defensive versatility is important, but bench player skills like speed, or power against certain types of pitchers, may be more valuable to Hinch at this point in the club’s development. They could theoretically take both, but the Tigers seem more likely to take a 10 man bullpen north to help mitigate the short runup to the season for starting pitchers.
Given the value that a quality utility player can bring, the Tigers could be leaning towards keeping Harold Castro for the long haul given that he has proven to be a better defender at more positions than Willi Castro and was a better hitter last season. Harold is also a well respected leader in the clubhouse who, while perhaps not producing too much offense, rarely makes mistakes either. The younger Castro is more of the streaky type, with blunders and mental mistakes grating against the attributes of speed, power, and some switch-hitting ability he brings to the table.
Regardless of which direction the team is leaning now, the first month of the season could go a long way in making this decision for them. Harold Castro was the steadier player last year, but Willi Castro getting off to a fast start with the bat could convince the team that he has earned a longer look. Both players have had varying levels of success throughout their short careers, but with the influx of talent, and young infielders Isaac Paredes and Ryan Kreidler behind them, time could be running out for one of the Castros.
In the end, Harold Castro is the steady hand, and probably earned the Opening Day nod with his value to the team last season. That would be our guess if we were betting on it. Willi Castro has struggled enough in the infield, and shows enough raw speed, to warrant a conversion to the outfield. A stint at Toledo working as a full-time utility player could help him rejuvenate a stalling major league career.