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Thoughts On Two Months of Nick Castellanos

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

There is no perfect point in the calendar to take stock of things and pretty much every time period you can think of is technically arbitrary. There isn’t a magic moment at which point stats become meaningful or scouting data becomes meaningful. It’s all meaningful and more of it is always better than less. But after two months of baseball, I’d like to provide some thoughts on the Tigers most interesting 2014 player. I don’t mean interesting as in “he is the most interesting player,” but rather “his 2014 season is the most important for how we think about him as a player.” This is, of course, Nick Castellanos.

I won’t bore you with the granular details, but Castellanos looked good, then he slumped, then he started to look okay again at the plate. He’s had good and bad moments in the field. His baserunning has been an adventure. All told, at this moment, he’s got a 74 wRC+ (which isn’t good), a -1.5 BsR (which is very bad), and a -2 UZR and -7 DRS (which aren’t very good at all). That’s -0.2 fWAR in 181 PA.

If you took his first two months and played them over and over, you wouldn’t want to keep doing that for very long. On balance, he hasn’t been a great player, but we don’t really care about that for Nick because he’s 22 and getting his first taste of big league action. He will not earn ROY honors based on his first two months, but luckily the Tigers played well anyway and we have five and a half more years to actually get some value out of him.

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first. He’s not a good baserunner, or at least, he’s slow and hasn’t shown good enough instincts to compensate. We never expected him to be a good runner, so this is totally cool!

The defensive numbers are interesting and instructive. He graded out well very early but has since slid back to below average almost entirely for what the numbers consider poor range. He’s league average or better as far as making the plays he gets to, and well below average at getting to the ball. But it’s only been 400 innings, so it’s perfectly fine to be skeptical of the precise values a little bit.

I’ve watched or listened to almost every inning he’s played this season and here are my observations. I think he has the skill to be a perfectly competent third baseman. The range isn’t great, but his hands are good, the arm is strong, and he has decent instincts. He’s done a nice job coming in on the ball and I’ve liked what I’ve seen when he throws the ball. I’ve heard from others that they feel good about his change to stay at third. My guess is that he’s going to be a -5 to 0 3B for the next few years, but that’s totally okay. He doesn’t have to be a plus defender to be a good player, he just has to be able to play the position, which I think he can. I suspect his DRS (which is the metric that likes him least) will even out as he gets more chances, and especially once he gets to cheat toward the line when Iglesias gets healthy.

So this brings us to his bat. If you look at the raw numbers, it hasn’t been great. He has a wOBA under .300, he’s not walking, and he’s not hitting for enough power. But again, you shouldn’t expect a guy to hit his projection during the first two months on the job. Growing pains are fine. If he’s this guy forever, that would be bad, but that’s probably not going to happen.

He has a contact problem, with a contact rate of 69.5% when he swings. To give you an idea, league average is 79.4% and Castellanos ranks 12th worst among qualifiers. Unless you hit for tons of power, that contact rate is too low. But we’ve seen signs from Nick that he’s figuring it out. He went an entire month without a walk from late April to late May and then walked a bunch of times in late May. Some of this is learning what you can and can’t hit. My guess is that he’s always been so talented that almost no one could throw a pitch he couldn’t square up. That happens in the bigs and he simply needs to adjust to it.

From what I’ve heard, he’s a very smart hitter who constantly adjusts, so this shouldn’t be a problem long term. When Nick does make contact, I’ve been really impressed with how much barrel he gets on the baseball and how well he sprays line drives around the diamond. There’s a lot to like there, for me. Better pitch recognition and decision making should make a world of difference for a guy with such natural ability to hit.

If he becomes a league average hitter (.320 wOBA/100 wRC+ or so), he’s a perfectly useful player. But if he can, and I think he will, make good use of that hit tool, he could be a .350 wOBA type guy and could be a 3 win player without really stretching it. If he can really figure out the contact, I wouldn’t be shocked if he found his way into the .370 wOBA range, which is something like a 4 win player given the rest of his profile.

He hasn’t been a star on arrival, but I haven’t seen anything that’s worried me. He’s not going to have to move off the position and he’s shown plenty of ability to hit with the need to make important refinements in his approach. I think it’s reasonable to see him as a slightly above average player going forward. 2-3 wins seems safe with 3-4 quite likely.

Personally, I’m actually a little more bullish than that. I still think he’s going to be a star because, in my mind, his problem isn’t making contact, it’s knowing when not to swing. I think that’s more likely to improve with age than an actually difficulty hitting the ball well. He’s sharp and I think he’ll get there. I think good player to borderline all-star is what I’d project, but given what we’ve seen from him, I’m not worried about any sort of flame out. He isn’t drowning now and it’s only going to get better.

Nick Castellanos is Forcing the Issue

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I’m the last person in the world you’ll hear clamoring for the Tigers to make roster moves to replace players who are having  a bad two weeks and I’m never someone who advocates rushing prospects because you have a need at the major league level. This is not that kind of post.

In fact, it’s the opposite. Andy Dirks is slumping at the plate, although his defense has been very good, but Matt Tuiasosopo is more than capable of stepping in to be the Tigers everyday left fielder for now. The Tigers had the league’s best offense entering the day (112 wRC+) and we all know they have the best pitching staff in baseball quite comfortably. I’m not worried about the Tigers one bit. They are a great team who will win the Central, barring significant injuries, quite easily.

But Nick Castellanos, the Tigers top prospect, is sitting in AAA Toledo and he’s starting to make some noise. A lot of it actually. No player under 24 had a higher wRC+ than Castellanos in AAA except for the recently promoted super-prospect Wil Myers. Nick is now the best young hitter at his level and he may be outgrowing it.

The book on Castellanos is a great hit tool with the expectation that the power will develop. His approach has needed work and his defense is still coming along. The club moved him to the OF after the Fielder signing, but he was originally a 3B. He’s 21 years old, in Triple A, and he’s forcing the issue.

Since I no longer live in Toledo, I haven’t seen Castellanos play defense, but I haven’t heard any horror stories, even if he isn’t great. But I can follow the numbers he’s putting up at the plate from 600 miles away and it’s starting to get good.

Here is how Castellanos’ numbers have looked over the course of the season (OBP, SLG, K%, and BB% at the end of each game):

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His OBP is now over .350 and his SLG is up near .500 and both numbers have been trending upward. He’s mashing lefties (1.016 OPS) and isn’t having trouble with righties either (.805 OPS). The walks are way up from last year and the strikeouts have come down. And these numbers are coming from one of the lowest BABIP’s of his career (.332 entering Wednesday) against the best competition he’s ever faced.

In half a season at Triple A, he’s put up big numbers and the biggest of those are coming more recently. The plate discipline appears to be getting better and the power is coming. I’m sure he could benefit from more seasoning and his defense probably still needs work, but it’s getting close to that time.

The Tigers don’t need him, but he’s getting close to the point where it might be time for him to come up anyway. You shouldn’t rush a prospect because your team needs him, but you also shouldn’t stash him in the minors just because you don’t. The Tigers shouldn’t be worried about his service time when they’re in their championship window. There are times to worry about an arbitration clock and there are times to play your best 25. This is the latter.

I’m not a professional scout and won’t pretend to be and I haven’t seen Castellanos live this year, but if I’m following the numbers it’s starting to look like he’s ready. This is the Tigers’ blue chip, top prospect. The Tigers are built to win now with or without him, but if he’s ready, then it’s time to call him up.

The timetable has always been late 2013 for Nick and he’s walking around Fifth Third Field in Toledo like he won’t be there much longer. I’m not saying it should be tomorrow or even this month, but I think it’s time for Nick to come north.

Two years ago, people wanted to call him up to play 2B because the Tigers didn’t have a 2B. That was silly because he wasn’t ready and he wasn’t a 2B. But it’s two years later I’m starting to think he’s ready to hit big league pitching and I’m starting to wonder if he’s one of the best OF bats the Tigers have to offer.

I think we’ll see Tuiasosopo get a few more at bats in the next couple weeks and if he hits, maybe the Tigers let Nick work on his glove. But if Tuiasosopo isn’t mashing the ball and Castellanos stays hot, our deadline deal might be with the Toledo Mud Hens, when we recall a potential franchise cornerstone.

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