| The Detroit News
Detroit — Shortstop Willi Castro is the wrong guy to make snap judgements on.
You see him come up and struggle mightily in the field and at the plate in 30 games in September of 2019 and you figure he can’t play at the big-league level. Then he comes back the next season and in 36 games posts the second-best rookie season in Tigers’ franchise history, finishing fourth in the American League rookie-of-the-year balloting.
Can’t play, huh?
Same with his personality and demeanor. It may seem, because he’s a gentle soul, quiet, polite, easy going off the field, that he lacks intensity. Wrong. The competitive fires burn hot in this 25-year-old, as former manager Ron Gardenhire found out after he told Castro at the end of summer camp that he didn’t make the opening day roster.
Castro was, to keep it PG-13, livid. In fact, Castro points to that meeting as the trigger for his eventual success last season.
“I got really locked in when I got called into the office and told I was going to start in Toledo,” he said in Zoom call Wednesday from Lakeland, Florida. “I was not really happy with that. I know I did a good job.”
He did. After hitting .308 in the abbreviated Grapefruit League season, he was hitting the ball all over the yard in summer camp scrimmages, hitting .320. By all rights, Castro should have started the season in the big leagues.
But he had minor-league options left and Dawel Lugo did not. Niko Goodrum had already been given the shortstop job after last season and veteran Jordy Mercer was signed to be the primary back-up. And besides, whoever had that last roster spot wasn’t going to play much. Castro, the Tigers said, would be better off getting regular work at the alternate site.
That he was an innocent victim of the numbers game did not assuage Castro’s grief one bit.
“But I stayed with a focused mind,” Castro said. “I went down there and had good at-bats and worked hard so I could get back to the bigs. And that’s what happened. I kept my routine going, kept my focus and had a good year.”
A really good year — well, a really good partial year. The switch-hitter slashed .349/.381/.550 with six home runs and an OPS-plus of 150. But, it’s a 36-game, 140-plate appearance sample, less than a quarter of a full regular season. And though he took some strides defensively, he still finished with a minus-7 in defensive runs saved. Of his five errors, four were throwing errors.
“The main thing is the defensive side,” he said. “I still got to learn more. The throwing, I struggled with that a little bit. But it’s something I can change. I know I can fix that. As a player you are going to struggle with some stuff. I know I can fix that.”
The throwing errors, as he and infield coach Ramon Santiago have both explained, are related to footwork and mechanics — and confidence — more than any lack of arm strength.
“When I have a good position with my legs, I’m always going to make a good throw,” he said. “I think there were times when I was afraid of making a bad throw. But I just tried to keep that out of my mind and in the last few games I threw the ball a lot better.”
He was playing with soreness in his right shoulder, too, he acknowledged Wednesday. He finished the season on the injured list and has been resting and rehabbing the last two months. He said he’s ready to resume throwing but the Tigers have asked him not to play winter ball and just work on his strength and conditioning.
“It feels way better now,” he said.
Castro will come to spring training in February (pandemic willing) having to prove himself to a third different manager and coaching staff in four years — from Terry Francona in 2018, to Ron Gardenhire the last two years and now AJ Hinch.
“Yeah, I was excited,” he said about the Hinch hiring. “I look forward to meeting him.”
Interesting and perhaps telling, the only member of the new coaching staff to reach out to Castro thus far has been third base coach Chip Hale. Certainly he has an ally in returning first-base coach Santiago, but he’s yet to talk or text with Hinch.
Although Hinch has talked about the value of Goodrum being able to play multiple positions — similar to what Marwin Gonzalez and Yuli Gurriel did for him in Houston — Castro said he’s not been giving any assurances about returning as the starting shortstop.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Castro said. “I’m just looking forward to coming in with a better mindset, come in stronger and be more successful. I am going to prepare to have a really good spring training.”
That’s the political answer. The truer answer, if Castro would let his fiery side talk, would probably sound more like — It’s my job; you’re going have to fight me for it.