LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Two years from now, Detroit’s corner outfield positions could very well be occupied by the pair of players who started there Friday in the Grapefruit League opening 2-1 win over the Atlanta Braves at Champion Stadium.
Right fielder Avisail Garcia and left fielder Nick Castellanos both walked and grounded out against the Braves in their two plate appearances. They were not pivotal in the outcome of this game, but are central to the organization’s future.
Tigers fans have a good idea of what Garcia, 21, brings to the table. The Venezuelan mini-me of Miguel Cabrera hit .319 after a September call-up and then .455 in the ALCS against the New York Yankees. He covers plenty of ground in the outfield, has a canon for an arm, and needs to develop power to become a five-tool player.
Castellanos, who turns 21 on March 4, is a familiar name because everybody from Hall of Famer Al Kaline on down in the organization raves about his potential. But his game had been just a conversation piece until now. He has an outside chance to make the club this year despite never having played past Double-A, and his time is nearing.
He was voted the MVP of the Futures Game at last year’s All-Star Game in Kansas City, and was bandied about as a September call-up possibility even before Garcia. However, he took some time to adjust to Erie after moving up from Class A Lakeland, and the call never came. That played with his mind a bit.
“I started to think about that and it can be a distraction,” Castellanos said. “It’s best not to pay attention or read anything.”
So, it was a distraction for him?
“Maybe,” Castellanos said, pausing. “Definitely towards the end it was.”
Learning how to handle the hopes and expectations are as much a part of becoming a big leaguer as learning a new position. That’s what Castellanos, who played shortstop in high school and was moved to third base by the Tigers after getting drafted in the first round in 2010, is doing.
“He’s adapted to the outfield real well,” said Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila. “The difference since last year is night and day. More fluid is a good way to describe it.”
Castellanos worked on outfield play last year with Kaline at Erie, and continues to be mentored by the 10-time Gold Glove winner.
“You can’t have anyone more knowledgeable than Al Kaline teaching you how to play the outfield,” Castellanos said. “Anything he has to say, I’m listening to.”
Kaline has taken a shine to him.
“Nick is one of our absolute best prospects,” Kaline said. “They wanted him to make a change because third base is tied up on our club for a while (with Miguel Cabrera). And he embraced it. He’s one of the few young guys who asked me a lot of questions. He’s ready to try anything and he’s ready to work.”
Castellanos was rated by Baseball America as the top prospect in Detroit’s farm system, and No. 21 among all major league prospects. Garcia was No. 74 and closer-in-waiting Bruce Rondon, who will pitch Saturday in Lakeland against the Toronto Blue Jays, was No. 95.
“He hits the ball the other way very well,” Kaline said. “That ability will keep him from going into slumps for long spells. He’ll get bigger and stronger and pull the ball more. Twenty homers for Nick is not out of the question. He’s got all the earmarks of a good hitter, and still has some holes in his swing. But he’s working at it.
“This guy is a baseball player.”
And, coming from Kaline, there is no better compliment.
Castellanos hit a homer and got three hits in the Futures Game, whetting the appetite of fans who already were excited about his potential.
“It meant a lot to me,” Castellanos said. “It was great to represent Detroit and do well.”
He has a wide and open stance that lends itself to good plate coverage.
Castellanos batted .405 in 55 games at Class A Lakeland before being sent to Erie, where he dropped off to .264 with 15 doubles, one triple, seven homers and 25 RBIs in 79 games.
“The pitching was more consistent,” Castellanos said. “And the game was faster.”
Then he went to both the Instructional League and the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .242 with one homer and 11 RBIs in 90 at-bats.
Avila said his offense dropped off because Castellanos “was about dead” after playing 158 games — not counting those in Instructional League.
“I went to Arizona mainly to learn left field,” Castellanos said. “I was dragging at the end, but it was a good experience.”
What’s been the most difficult thing about the switch to the outfield?
“Reading line drives,” Castellanos said. “You can’t really simulate that in practice. Some come at you with top-spin and some with back-spin. But now I feel comfortable. Al Kaline would tell me, ‘Go get it. Don’t be afraid to miss it.’ ”
They say he’s a can’t-miss prospect.
“I don’t know whether I am going to Erie, Toledo or Detroit,” Castellanos said. “I’m just working on my whole game and getting ready for the season.”