As roster expansion approaches, the time is drawing near when we will first see Nick Castellanos in genuine big-league action. The future Tigers look uncomfortably reliant on Castellanos in order to remain relevant past 2015 and – especially – to help keep payroll issues from biting as the Tigers attempt to hold onto guys like Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson. Going into the season, the Tigers had 3 premium prospects and a handful of guys that prospect watchers hoped might vault themselves into premium status with breakout seasons. Avisail Garcia is gone, Bruce Rondon is a big-leaguer and none of those guys really had big time breakouts (though obviously some guys like Daniel Fields have improved their stock). Castellanos stands alone, ranked #21 by both BA and MLB.com and likely to be ranked higher next spring. The question is now how he should best be managed.
The plan that most Tigers fans and Tigers writers seem to have in mind is to stick him in the lineup regularly in September and the postseason, then give him the starting job in left field next season. I would have to ask why. Castellanos is a premium prospect largely because of talent and youth, not so much due to his actual production to this point. We should probably expect him to hold his own as a big leaguer (though that’s no guarantee given how he struggled to adapt to AA initially last year) in the immediate future and to mature into an above average big league hitter. We should NOT expect him to come up and tear the league apart like Mike Trout or Yasiel Puig for the simple reason that he has not been tearing the upper minors apart. The big reason – or so we have heard – that Castellanos has spent the entire season in AAA this year is that his outfield defense is a work in progress. According to the best “advanced metric” available for minor leaguers (from www.claydavenport.com) Castellanos’ D this season has been 4 runs below average in left. For some reason, few mention that his OPS down there is only .787.
Now, that .787 OPS isn’t bad and is more likely to help his prospect status than hurt it. Castellanos is only 21 and the OPS comes with good peripherals (not luck with BABIP and HR/FB). Compared to his “slightly stronger” 2012 (with an .815 OPS split between a stellar half-season in Lakeland and a mediocre one in Erie) he looks like he has made significant strides despite the aggressive assignment. His walk rate is way up, strikeout rate is way down. His “isolated power” is up despite a significant drop in BABIP, which takes some doing as a lower BABIP means some doubles and triples aren’t falling as well as singles. The “average” drop in production when a guy transitions from AAA to the majors doesn’t seem to be quite what it was a few years ago, particularly when (as with Castellanos) that AAA production is based on solid fundamentals. According to claydavenport.com’s “Davenport Translations”, based on what Castellanos has done as a minor leaguer we should expect him to be a slightly below average bat as a lineup regular this year or next. We should also probably expect his D to be a little below average too, so what we’re looking at as a sort of median projection would be a 1.5 WAR player in left in 2014.
Is that something that the 2013 and 2014 Detroit Tigers would need or want? Tigers left fielders, on the season, have a .724 OPS and have been good for 2 WAR (thanks to some very good defense) in 3/4 of a season. Dirks has been getting a fair amount of flak this season for his underwhelming bat, but most of that can be chalked up to a BABIP way below what his xBABIP (based on hit trajectories) would suggest and he has played great defense. The Tigers other part-time left fielder has hit very well against left-handed pitching. It is highly likely that a Dirks/Tuiasosopo platoon would be as productive or more productive in 2014 (more from Dirks, less from Tui) and highly unlikely that Castellanos would be able to match their all-around contributions. Castellanos would be cheap, but Tuiasosopo and Dirks don’t cost anything either. Torii Hunter in right IS expensive (and worth slightly less in the way of WAR than the LF platoon) but he’s under contract for another year anyway.
The fact is, slotting Castellanos into the lineup in September or 2014 is more likely to make the team worse than better in the short term. The argument in favor is that Castellanos “deserves it” and “needs to play”, which is basically crap. So do the guys currently in the lineup. For the stretch run this season, there is an argument to be made for replacing Tuiasosopo with Castellanos as the weak side of that platoon, certainly, since Tuiasosopo has not been productive since the All-Star break. It’s entirely possible that Castellanos would outperform Tuiasosopo, now or next year, but Castellanos needs the at-bats against righties that he’d get playing full time in AAA too much to use him that way. If the Tigers lose confidence in Tui, and don’t feel that Dirks can play every day (his L-R splits are trivial) there are plenty of other options inside the organization and out for that part-time role. Had Castellanos shown that he had nothing left to learn in AAA, we could make the argument that he needed to see tougher competition in order to develop but I don’t think that is the case. A good guy to compare Castellanos to would be Wil Myers, formerly of the Royals now of the Rays. Myers is/was another highly touted bat-first righty that was converted into an outfielder midway through his minor league career. He’s about 15 months older than Castellanos and just made his big league debut on June 18 of this year. He was clearly good enough to make the Rays out of camp, but it would appear that he was deliberately held down to manipulate his arbitration clock. Following the same path, we should expect Castellanos to be knocking on the door by the middle of next year (pending actual need by the big league club) and to be handed a job in April 2015. The Tigers will need a replacement for Torii Hunter in April 2015 and have no intention of making decisions on prospects based on avoiding super-two status or the like. Prior to last season, Myers was coming off a year that was decent but not great as he transitioned into the outfield with a .745 OPS in AA and had a prospect ranking similar to Castellanos today (and probably in the spring). He wasn’t rushed to the big leagues, the Royals (and then the Rays) kept him down in AAA so that he could develop in all aspects of his game. Myers posted a .987 OPS in the minors last season and so far this year has hit the majors running with a .312/.362/.490 line in 52 games. Perhaps as important, his defense in his rookie year has been above average rather than below – he was given enough time to really figure out how to play in the outfield before being called up (though he may be a bit more athletic all around than Casty).
I would argue that we’d like to see Castellanos dominate AAA – like Myers did – before he is awarded a starting job in Detroit based on his own merit alone, rather than a desperate need. The Tigers do not currently have such a desperate need and won’t in 2014, barring injury. If, which is not unlikely, what we see in Toledo today is what Castellanos is and will be then we’d still like to give playing time to a slightly more mature Castellanos – who would be a solid contributor but no star. I don’t see any reason for the Tigers to give up on Dirks right now (after a nasty slump in late May and early June his batting line has been .258/.354/.367), or give playing time to Castellanos over Don Kelly in left if they did. If it were up to me, Castellanos woudn’t even get a chance to earn a roster spot next spring – even if the Tigers used him over Tuiasosopo in September and the playoffs – like Dayton Moore gave Wil Myers basically no chance to displace Jeff Francoeur in the spring of 2012 after a torrid AFL season put Myers back on everybody’s radar. However, Francoeur wound up being one of the worst regulars in the majors in 2012. While I don’t disagree with Moore’s decision to start the season with Francoeur in the lineup, it’s much harder to defend his decision to never call Myers up despite the offensive black hole that was Francoeur* – in fact it’s hard to imagine what could have justified it other than putting financial concerns ahead of winning games. It’s also hard to understand why the offensively challenged Rays held Myers in AAA until mid-June, if not for financial reasons. I would never argue that Dombrowski should lock the Tigers into a plan of giving Castellanos a job only in April 2015, but when he does arrive should depend upon the health and performance of Dirks and Hunter in 2014 moreso even than his own performance. As excited as Tigers fans are inclined to get about Castellanos, remember that the current team does not need a savior of any kind – though it would be nice if a handful of players played up to their talent level. Castellanos could start for them in left, but there isn’t any need for it at all any more than the Tigers currently need Drew Smyly to start.
* If you’re wondering why Francoeur’s 2012 was so bad and Dirks’ 2013 is not despite similar OPS lines, Francoeur played bad D and had an OPS slanted towards SLG which is actually less valuable than the “on-base” component.