W. Castro leads off spring slate with a bang

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — A.J. Hinch took the Tigers’ managerial job looking for better at-bats from Detroit’s offense. He didn’t have to wait long to find them, starting with his potential leadoff hitter.

Not only did Willi Castro hit the first pitch of the Tigers’ Grapefruit League campaign out to center field at Joker Marchant Stadium on Sunday afternoon, he left no doubt where it was headed. The switch-hitting shortstop crushed former Tiger Iván Nova’s first pitch 458 feet to center field with a 111 mph exit velocity. Castro later notched an RBI groundout out in what evolved into a six-run first frame that included three bases-loaded walks before Hinch and Phillies manager Joe Girardi called the inning with two outs.

“The first inning, the quality of at-bats, I thought, was exceptional, really top to bottom, the entire inning,” Hinch said after Detroit’s 10-2 win. “Obviously, Willi leading off spring with a homer was a nice little boost.”

There were other points Castro could improve upon, notably a third-inning throwing error on a ball up the middle when he tried to get a force out at second base.

“When things like that happen, I’d rather they happen now than either not happen or get exposed a little bit later,” Hinch said. “We were on top of that.”

Both plays are part of the evaluation process with Castro, but even with just 66 Major League games under his belt, he’s clearly an impact player who fits into Detroit’s future. It’s just a matter of where, both in the order and in the field.

“[Castro is] gifted,” Hinch said last week. “He’s got a great, athletic body. He can move. … We’ve got to make sure we don’t make him too mechanical.

“You can tell he’s trying to field the ball correctly every time. He’s trying to take his rhythm and timing and make good throws. He’s aware of where he struggled last season with being a little erratic with his throws. But defensively, he’s got the attributes to be an everyday shortstop and be consistent. We’ve got to give him time and experience to develop that.”

Offensively, Hinch said, “The ball sounds a little different off his bat, in a good way. And he’s got some interesting characteristics on how he hits the ball hard.”

Welcome back, fans
The last time the Tigers played with fans in the seats, they were finishing the final game of Spring Training before Major League Baseball suspended camps in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That was March 12, 2020, at Joker Marchant Stadium, where they welcomed fans back on Sunday.

It was a reduced capacity of around 2,000 fans, but after a season in empty ballparks with simulated crowd noise and cardboard cutouts, the difference was noticeable and appreciated.

“It’s awesome,” said Derek Holland, whose added velocity was noted during his scoreless inning of relief. “It’s everything that we want. We want to be able to have the fans back. I know they want to be out there. Just to be able to have that atmosphere and hearing the people, they could have been booing, cheering, whatever it was, it just felt good to have them there.”

Said outfielder Christin Stewart: “It was definitely really nice, a nice change. I mean, it was comforting knowing people were out there and they’re still coming to games, none of the fake crowd noise and stuff like that. It was a totally different atmosphere being at the game and being out there on the field.”

Paredes nearing return
The sight of Isaac Paredes’ name on the bench portion of the Tigers’ lineup card Sunday raised hopes that the third-base prospect was finally cleared to join camp. Turns out it was slightly premature.

Though Paredes has cleared intake testing to officially join camp, he still has to take his entrance physical. That couldn’t be done Sunday, so Paredes had to wait one more day. Once that’s done, he shouldn’t need long to get game-ready, having played a full season of winter ball in his native Mexico.

Tigers sign Lakeland native
Detroit announced Sunday that it had signed former Blue Jays starter Drew Hutchison to a Minor League contract and assigned him to its minicamp. The Lakeland native pitched last year for the Milwaukee Milkmen in the independent American Association, striking out 33 batters over 22 innings with a 4.09 ERA. The lefty last pitched in the Majors with the Rangers in 2018.

Kingdom Home to sponsor virtual run
Kingdom Home, the nonprofit started by Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd and his wife, Ashley, to combat child trafficking in Uganda, will hold a virtual walk/run over the next two weeks to help raise funds for a fourth home for rescued children.

From March 1-14, participants will have two weeks to walk or run one mile to complete the race and earn a certificate. A $25 registration fee includes a race bib and a photo of a Kingdom Home child the racer will represent. Participants can also create their own fundraising page to raise awareness. All proceeds go toward Kingdom Home to break ground on a new home for at-risk children.

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