Detroit Tigers’ Willi Castro will play some second base. Here’s why

Detroit Free Press

When Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch filled out his lineup card for Tuesday’s game — which was later postponed because of snow — he made a significant adjustment to the middle infield.

He penned Willi Castro as the second baseman, with utility player Niko Goodrum starting at shortstop. Goodrum was a Gold Glove finalist at that position in 2020.

On one level, this was a surprise, considering the organization has repeatedly labeld Castro the everyday shortstop. But on another level, it actually makes a lot of sense.

That’s because Castro, 24, is a below-average defender at short. It’s likely he handles second base when Goodrum is in the lineup to develop a secondary position. If Goodrum is on the bench, Castro can play shortstop to build his case for keeping that role in the future.

“It’s something I probably should’ve looked at in the spring,” Hinch said Tuesday. “You watch Niko play short, you see the opportunity to have a strong middle of the infield with Willi shifting over to second. I’ve asked everybody to be versatile, except for Willi. And he’s arguably just as versatile as anybody on our team.”

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Castro became the everyday shortstop Sept. 2 last season and finished the 2020 season with a minus-eight Defensive Runs Saved — a metric measuring how many runs a player has, or hasn’t, saved on defense — in 27 appearances there. In 29 games at short in 2019, he had a minus-four at short, and he’s already at minus-two at short through his first 15 games of 2021. Meanwhile, he had a minus-two at third base in eight appearances there in 2020.

Castro tied for fourth place in 2020 American League Rookie of the Year voting with a .349 batting average, six home runs and 24 RBIs in 36 games. Through 15 games this year, he is hitting .213 with zero homers, three RBIs, three walks and 16 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, Goodrum added plus-one DRS to his shortstop resume in one start this season. (He also has nine appearances at second base and two in left field this season.) The 29-year-old has a career plus-five DRS at short, with 11 errors in 320 chances (.966 fielding percentage) across 82 games.

Hinch said Goodrum made “arguably the best defensive plays of any position” during the recent 10-game road trip when he started at shortstop April 14 against the Houston Astros. Still, Goodrum isn’t as sharp offensively, with a career .223 batting average in 308 games.

“Niko, defensively at shortstop, is very, very good,” Hinch said. “We need to acknowledge that by giving him some time there. That means I have to move Willi if I want to play them both.”

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Last season, Castro made five errors in 85 chances at shortstop, giving him a .941 fielding percentage. This season, he has two errors in 54 chances, for a .963 fielding percentage.

Before Castro got the starting shortstop job in 2020 — due to his offensive success and Goodrum’s injury — the Tigers had him taking outfield lessons from then-first base coach Dave Clark.

Many of Castro’s errors are products of poor throws to first base. He doesn’t often allow himself to go all-out and let his athleticism take over. As the errors and miscues pile up, Castro is losing confidence — slowly negating the killer instinct a shortstop must have to succeed in the majors.

Hinch talked to Castro in Oakland about giving him his first stint at second since Aug. 23, 2020.

Castro didn’t mind switching spots with Goodrum.

“He had a great approach to it,” Hinch said. “He’s like, ‘I’ll play anywhere you want, just put me out there, and I’ll give you what I got.’ Confidence-wise, it didn’t hit him like a demotion. It’s not a demotion.

“There’s a need for patience and to learn on the go at this level, especially when you factor in his experience, the speed of the game and the magnitude of the position.”

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Castro’s problem is throwing, which shifting to second base would lessen with the shorter distance to first. Looking ahead, it allows the Tigers to prep Castro for this offseason, with a free-agent market possessing possibly the deepest group of young shortstops ever, including, but not limited to Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa and Javier Baez.

“I’m not even calling Willi’s situation issues,” Hinch said. “He’s a good major-league player that looks very comfortable on both sides of second base. But how do we maximize that while continuing the development of your ground-ball pitchers? On top of that, you have Niko Goodrum, who is a very talented shortstop and makes all the plays.

“As long as it doesn’t impact the player’s psyche of his confidence, or if he starts questioning my belief or the organization’s belief in him, then I don’t really see it as an issue. When Willi looks around the field and sees virtually everybody else playing a secondary position, it becomes natural for him to accept the role of second base once, twice or three times per week. Whatever it becomes.”

MORE ON CASTRO: Despite poor defense, Willi Castro is shortstop. Here’s AJ Hinch’s plan

In the short-term plan, Hinch’s decision gives his team the best chance to win. Keeping a weaker defender in Castro at shortstop, at least when Goodrum is in the lineup, isn’t a winning solution.

Therefore, Hinch chose — after 16 games this season — to do what seemed bound to happen at some point in Castro’s career.

“It’s not that big of a deal to Willi or me or our team,” Hinch said. “But if it makes us stronger up the middle with that particular duo, then great.”

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

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