Detroit Tigers can still win Nicholas Castellanos trade if these 2 pitchers become pieces

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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LAKELAND, Fla. — Nicholas Castellanos wasn’t going to re-sign with the Detroit Tigers after the 2019 season. His final three months of the year, wherever he played, had short-term implications as free agency loomed.

The Tigers knew this. So did the Chicago Cubs.

In a last-minute trade deadline move July 31, 2019, the Tigers dealt Castellanos to the Cubs in exchange for pitching prospects Alex Lange and Paul Richan. The Tigers had already secured 73 of their 114 losses, so general manager Al Avila took the best offer he could get.

For subscribers: Why Riley Greene might be the best Tigers prospect of all

Castellanos hit .321 in 51 games for the Cubs, slamming 16 home runs and 36 RBIs. He had a 1.002 OPS. The Cubs wanted an impact left-handed bat, and that’s what they got. Still, they missed the playoffs.

The Tigers could still win the trade if the return pieces — Lange and Richan — become formidable. They’re both pitching in the instructional league in Lakeland. 

“Our sights were on trying to see if there was any type of return we could get for Nick,” Avila said after the trade. “I think we felt fortunate to get two pitchers that we feel are prospects that we feel have upside to get to the big leagues and contribute. If we didn’t get that, we would have probably just kept Nick for two months.”

As expected, Castellanos was a short-term rental for the Cubs and signed elsewhere in the offseason, joining the Cincinnati Reds on a four-year, $64 million contract. The 28-year-old logged a .225 batting average with 14 homers in 60 games this season.

Here’s how Lange and Richan have developed since the 2019 trade:

[ Why one Tigers prospect is trusting the ‘hit doctor’ to elevate his game ]

RHP Alex Lange

Age: 25.

Drafted: 2017 draft (first round, No. 30 overall) by Cubs.

2019 with Double-A Erie: 9 G, 15⅔ IP, 3.45 ERA, 1.340 WHIP, 15 SO, 8 BB.

The 2020 season would have been colossal for Lange’s development. He was 30-9 with a 2.91 ERA and 406 strikeouts in 350 innings in his three-year LSU career. He made three appearances in the College World Series and is considered one of LSU’s best pitchers in program history.

But he isn’t the same pitcher anymore.

He worked as a starter in the Cubs’ organization, advancing to Double-A Tennessee before the Tigers acquired him. He struggles with poor command at times, but there’s an upside because of his past.

“Executing fastball command is going to be a big thing for me,” Lange told the Free Press on Saturday. “Throwing my breaking ball for strikes in any count and just owning the dish with the heater and breaking ball, continuing to include the changeup and cutter when needed. Just knowing who I am as a pitcher, pitching off my strengths and doing what I need to do to get outs.”

To help Lange focus on these tasks, the Tigers moved him to the bullpen. He joined summer camp midway through July and was added to the alternate training site in Toledo in September. Facing veteran hitters with MLB experience, Lange didn’t perform well when he first showed up at Comerica Park and Fifth Third Field.

Players at both locations had a strong understanding of how to attack the strike zone, so Lange had no choice but to command his fastball and breaking ball. He learned to lead with his breaking ball to make his fastball look even more threatening. 

Lange’s fastball sits around 94 mph and can get to 96 mph.

“You have to command your stuff,” Lange said. “You have to know your stuff. … I think a big thing is patterning. Not falling into patterns with your pitches, not being predictable. Being able to throw any pitch in any count is important.”

His best minor-league season came in 2018 for High-A Myrtle Beach as a starter for the Cubs. He had a 3.74 ERA in 120⅓ innings with 101 strikeouts and 38 walks. For the most part, however, his professional career has been a roller coaster.

Yet his fastball velocity is rising again, and he’s trying to take his command to the next level. He thinks moving to the bullpen has helped him focus on both aspects of his approach, even without the minors to show measurable progress.

“I’ve always seen myself coming out of the back-end of the bullpen,” Lange said. “I’m aggressive on the mound, very down your throat. I’m coming after you. I think my mentality really fits well in the bullpen. I want to help the Tigers however I can out of the bullpen.

“I’m comfortable here. I really like where I’m at as a reliever. I just think I’m built for it. I’m ready.”

[ How Tigers’ Riley Greene found his swing — and his swagger — in Toledo ]

RHP Paul Richan

Age: 23.

Drafted: 2018 draft (second round, No. 78 overall) by Cubs.

2019 with High-A Lakeland: 5 G (5 GS), 30⅔ IP, 4.11 ERA, 1.337 WHIP, 29 SO, 2 BB.

Richan didn’t get invited to summer camp nor the reserve squad in Toledo. And had it not been for a facility in Arizona, he wouldn’t have made much progress this year. But he was “lucky enough” to share a training area with a handful of fellow professional players.

He used Rapsodo — a $4,000-plus device — to measure advanced pitch data: velocity, spin rate, spin axis, spin efficiency, strike zone analysis, horizontal and vertical break and much more. 

The Tigers scheduled Richan to throw five innings each week for about two months. It helped he had Rapsodo and pro hitters to aid his development. Many minor leaguers left behind by the organization didn’t have this luxury.

“Every bullpen and live BP, I was able to look at the numbers and make adjustments,” Richan said Saturday. “Last year, I had a pretty average, maybe even below average curveball and changeup. I was able to make huge strides in that for this year. Throwing them all for strikes like I can with my fastball.”

Richan’s style is a strike-thrower. Of the 128 batters he faced in his five starts for Lakeland, he walked two. He registered 29 strikeouts and averaged 0.6 walks per nine innings with a 14.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Although he had a 4.11 ERA following the trade, Richan boasted a 2.66 FIP, which measures a pitcher’s effectiveness without help from the defense. The stat focuses on home runs and walks allowed.

“I just want to continue to prove that and show them they can put me in the game in whatever situation,” Richan said. “I can get people out. That’s how you win games.”

Because of his superb control, Richan was in line for a promotion to Erie this season. When Tigers shortstop Willi Castro graduated from prospect status in August, Richan entered MLB Pipeline‘s list of the team’s top 30 prospects, ranking 29th.

For subscribers: Where Tigers top prospects stand entering instructional league: ‘As advertised’

Other pitching prospects Alex Faedo (No. 10), Joey Wentz (No. 9), Tarik Skubal (No. 5), Matt Manning (No. 3) and Casey Mize (No. 2) are ahead of him in the rankings, and Richan has never been considered among the franchise’s starting rotation of the future. But his command is advanced. He will lean on that to guide him to the majors, whether as a starter or long reliever. 

Richan doesn’t have a true plus offering, so he remains focused on trying to command all his pitches.

Throwing strikes will get him to the majors.

“I got a little taste of big-league spring training this year,” Richan said. “I want to get back to that atmosphere. It’s really fun to be around the veteran guys and big leaguers, just to learn from them. You can learn something every single day from all the guys that are around.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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