Nick Castellanos entered the 2012 season as the number two prospect in the Tigers system, behind only the since departed Jacob Turner. With a sizzling first half in High-A that included a .405 batting average and an MVP performance in the Futures Game at All-Star weekend, Castellanos has seen his stock soar to new heights.
As if all that activity wasn't enough, the Tigers pushed the 20-year old phenom to Double-A and then topped it all off by moving him from third base to right field in recent weeks. It has been a whirlwind season for Castellanos. It has been a season that has vaulted him to lofty levels of the prospect world and it has been a season that has generated incredible excitement among Tigers fans.
You can see it in the numbers. Everywhere you look on Castellanos' stat line there is something that stands out and tells the tale of just how impressive he is at the plate.
"We think he can be a quality Major Leaguer," said Tigers president and CEO Dave Dombrowski earlier this week. "We think he's a special kind of hitter. He can really do some impressive things with the bat."
Dave Dombrowski doesn't risk standing alone with such statements. Coaches, scouts and other baseball officials are unanimous in their praise of Castellanos' offensive talent. The ball makes that "different" sound when it leaves his bat. He has a preternatural feel for the barrel, allowing him to make easy, hard contact on all types of pitches, in every part of the strike zone.
Critics nitpick by pointing out how infrequently he walks and wonder where the power is. When you watch Castellanos hit, you can derive some of the answers to these questions and realize why so many are so quick to anoint him a potential offensive beast.
Castellanos likes to swing. Any player with his ability to barrel the ball is going to have a preference for swinging the bat rather than taking walks. That said, from one at-bat to the next, you can see Castellanos' approach change. You can watch him track the ball better out of the pitcher's hand. You can watch him work deeper into counts looking for a pitch he can not only make contact with, but can drive with authority. Castellanos makes the type of adjustments that make people within the game drool. He may not walk, but he should not be looked upon as some sort of hacker that expands his strike zone at every opportunity.
As for the power, don't worry about that either. At six-foot-four and a lean 210 pounds, Castellanos is already extremely strong and has plenty of room to continue filling out his lanky frame. His bat speed is already out of this world and he can drive the ball out of any part of the park. For now though, Castellanos is happy to drive the ball from the left-center field gap to the right-center field gap, making hard contact and racking up doubles.
"The power will come," said a veteran AL scout. "Guys with his bat speed and his physicality are special. As good a hitter as he already is, he's still learning. He's learning how and when to really turn on a ball and put a charge in it. It'll come."
When asked to talk about his offensive approach or what he thinks about heading into the box, Castellanos offers a simplified explanation that may seem like a stretch; "I try not to really think about anything. I just try to hit the ball hard."
Sometimes, it's just that easy. His manager in Erie, Chris Cron, offers a slightly more elaborate explanation.
"It's hard to explain as something you or I can relate to," said Cron as we watched Castellanos take batting practice. "Do we think about the math problem two-plus-two? No, we don't. It just sort of happens. That's what hitting is like for him. He doesn't have to think about it. He just steps in there and he knows what to do. It comes so naturally for him. We can't relate to it because hitting isn't supposed to be that easy."
Clearing a Path
"With Miguel Cabrera at third base, Prince Fielder at first base and Victor Martinez as our designated hitter, we felt like we had to clear a path for Castellanos to get to the big leagues," said Dombrowski when asked about the motivation for moving Castellanos to the outfield.
The topic has been bandied about for months among people both in and out of the game. While his defense at third base was still developing, there were always rumblings that Castellanos could move to the outfield. Those rumblings became a deafening roar when the Tigers signed Prince Fielder and shifted Miguel Cabrera to the hot corner.
Just after the Major League Baseball All-Star break, the Tigers pulled the trigger and moved Castellanos from third base to right field. The move marked the second time since signing his first professional contract in 2010 that he had changed positions, having moved off shortstop to third base as a pro.
"I think the move is going really well so far," said Castellanos after finishing some extra drills before Tuesday's game in New Hampshire. "I'm learning a lot every day. I keep getting better every day. It's a process."
The Tigers have jumped into the move with both feet, committing to Castellanos in the outfield and hopefully clearing a path for him to arrive in the big leagues quickly.
"Is the move permanent? I can't see the future," said Dombrowski flatly. "I do know that we view Nick as an outfielder moving forward. We see him as a big piece of our future in the outfield."
The move hasn't been easy. Castellanos has struggled with the transition at times, noting that one aspect that nobody considers is that he has spent the entirety of his baseball career on the left side of the field. The ball comes at him differently now and that adds to the positional adjustment.
When we spoke earlier this week, Castellanos had just finished an extra drill that he works on daily with manager Chris Cron and hitting coach Jerry Martin. After infield/outfield drills, Castellanos remains in right field and Cron takes soft toss from Martin, hitting an extra 20-25 balls Castellanos' way.
"That drill really helps me," said Castellanos. "It's a lot different when the ball comes off the bat after being tossed. It's a lot more realistic. It helps me get used to the way the ball moves in the air and how to track it off the bat."
Aside from his observations about Castellanos' actual defensive skills, Cron has noticed something else in his top prospect.
"I see a different enthusiasm in him," said Cron excitedly. "It's fun to watch. You can see it in the way he moves out there. He just seems more enthusiastic about working on his defense. I think he sees a real opportunity to get to the big leagues quicker."
Stay tuned for part two, with scouts' take on Castellanos at the plate, in right field, and the near term path ahead for Nick.