In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. #9: Daniel Norris | #8: Justin Wilson | #7: Mark Lowe |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5: Francisco Rodriguez | #4: James McCann
It feels like he’s been around forever, but Nick Castellanos is just 24 years old. He was the 44th overall pick in the 2010 draft and essentially from the time he was drafted until he lost his rookie eligibility, he personified the Tigers future. Fans wanted to rush him to the majors to fill a void at second base. They demanded his presence in the OF when the team needed an OF. He was an actual prospect in a system rarely known for having actual prospects!
But after two years as a full-time player, the shine is completely off the apple. He’s been a below average hitter in the majors and has been arguably one of the worst defenders in the game since his arrival. He’s still young, but baseball fans are unforgiving and youth is only an excuse to them when you lack experience. After two years of experience, Castellanos now faces his make or break season.
The ship has sailed on Castellanos as a good defender, not that such a thing was ever likely, but he did go from disastrous to bad from 2014 to 2015, so if he can take a small step forward by eliminating mistakes on easier plays, he should be able to hold on to third base for another year or two. He’s seemed to be a -10 or -15 true talent third basemen based on the numbers and my own observations. If he could arrive somewhere between -5 and -10, we will all consider it a victory.
The question for Castellanos this year will be his bat. His glove just has to be not-embarrassing and we’ll make do. But he was supposed to hit and needs to hit or his place on the roster as someone who will get 600 PA will come into dispute quickly.
If you compare his 2014 and 2015 seasons, they are nearly identical offensively except that the more recent Castellanos hit for more power. Walks, strikeouts, and BABIP were all about the same, but his ISO rose from .135 to .164. Keep in mind that offense went up across the leauge however, so his slight spike in wOBA translated into no movement in his wRC+.
But that is not the point. The point is the turning point. In late June, Ausmus sat Castellanos down for a couple of days and unless Ausmus learns to manage at some point in the future, it will go down as his crowning achievement. From June 23 forward, Castellanos hit .283/.329/.487 (121 wRC+) in 340 PA. For his career prior, those numbers were .247/.293/.372 (83 wRC+) in 852 PA. The difference is an 80 point jump in ISO and a 60 point jump in BABIP.
Was that a smaller sample size aberration? We’ll soon find out. The power absolutely looked real to the naked eye, as Castellanos drove the ball with much more authority when he squared up a pitch, but the BABIP remains to be seen. His style of hitting lends itself to a higher than average BABIP, but there’s a big gulf between a .315 BABIP and a .340 BABIP that we’ll need to litigate over time.
Castellanos has a swing you can dream on and he definitely bulked up between 2014 and 2015. His approach leaves something to be desired but it really might be as simple as learning to lay off the breaking ball low and away. He can’t hit that pitch and once he stopped trying, his numbers perked up. There’s loads of offensive potential in his bat, he just needs to hone his approach now that he’s added enough strength to hit for power.
A 120 wRC+ Castellanos is a totally plausible thing. And if he hits like that with a below average, but not embarrassing glove, the team has themselves a quality big leaguer.
When we were naive and hopeful back in 2013, Castellanos seemed like a good bet to be an average player with an occasional All-Star year. After two rough years, the odds of that player arriving are lower, but they aren’t gone. Castellanos got full-time major league work very early, and he might simply have been a player who didn’t face enough good stuff in the minors to learn how to handle it.
If the June 23+ Castellanos comes back in 2016, the Tigers are going to be in a much better position to win the Central than if the pre-June 23 Castellanos returns. It’s hard to be a real contender when getting replacement level performance from an everyday player, but if Castellanos is ready to make the leap, the Tigers might just get to play beyond Game 162.