The Detroit Tigers believe in Willi Castro’s offense.
He’s not quite the defensive shortstop the Tigers were banking on, but the truth is the organization won’t care if he never plays shortstop again. They just want to see his bat spark, as it did in 2020 during an American League Rookie of the Year race.
To help fill and immediate need, manager AJ Hinch gave Castro his first start in the outfield since he was 12 years old. He stood in left field Saturday for a clash with Cleveland. (Everyday outfielders Akil Baddoo and Derek Hill are healing from a scary collision.) Adding the outfield to Castro’s resume could also benefit the future plans, as long as his offense perks up.
Hinch is already well-versed in defensive versatility.
“The more positions we can put him at, the better. It does not close the book at second base and even shortstop,” Hinch said. “It may spark a huge skill set that can help our team, help him and make it an even more interesting team. If not, no harm is done and we’ll get him back to second base primarily. I’m just not afraid of trying it, and I’m not afraid to try in games.”
In Baltimore, Castro talked about his age.
He is 24 years old, the second-youngest position player on the active roster. He might always deal with high strikeout rates, but the Tigers think Castro has untapped offensive potential — the kind only reps and adjustments will develop.
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Castro is hitting .214 with five triples, seven home runs, 34 RBIs, 19 walks and 92 strikeouts over 94 games this season. Last year, he posted a .349 batting average, six home runs and 24 RBIs in 36 games, finishing tied for fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting.
“Every season coming up (in the minors), I was always the younger one,” Castro said Aug. 10, just hours before he went 2-for-4 with a double, triple and three RBIs in a 9-4 win at Camden Yards. “It’s great to be around these guys that are older than me. I look up to them.”
Before the next two games in Baltimore, Castro completed outfield drills with bench coach George Lombard. He then played in left field Saturday and Sunday against Cleveland.
“I thought he was good,” Hinch said. “I know that everything is new for him. I was glad that a couple balls got hit to him. It’s funny, the difficult ball down the line is a learning lesson. I’ve seen really good outfielders screw that play up quite a bit, so that doesn’t faze me.”
After Saturday’s 6-4 win, Castro said he “felt really good” and “really confident” in left field.
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“Maybe playing the outfield will free him up,” Hinch said. “He was not tense at all tonight or nervous. He felt right in position.”
The power of defensive versatility was put on display in Saturday’s late innings. After drawing a seven-pitch walk to open the eighth inning and the game tied, 4-4, Miguel Cabrera was replaced by pinch-runner Jacob Robson.
By the top of the ninth, the Tigers had a 6-4 lead but needed to make position changes. Robson remained in the game as the left fielder, pushing Castro back to his typical spot at second base. To make room for Castro there, Jonathan Schoop went to first base.
Just like that, Hinch had everything sorted out.
“I’ve got no fear with Willi in left,” Hinch said. “I moved him when I ran for Miggy. We ended up reconfiguring our defense. That’s the type of value that I love having with multiple positional players, where I can make any decision I want and have an answer for how to configure our team.”
Now think about the future.
As soon as the 2022 season, infield alignments could include Cabrera, Schoop, first/third baseman Spencer Torkelson, third baseman Jeimer Candelario and, of course, a free-agent addition (possibly a premier shortstop).
Since the Tigers expect Castro’s offense to improve, where does he fit in?
He could end up as a utility player in an everyday role, filling in at corner outfield, third base, shortstop and second base. These types of players are rare and tough to find, but they undoubtedly benefit winning teams.
While Castro isn’t above-average at any of these positions, his versatility would allow for what feels like limitless defensive alignments. (He is the worst second baseman in baseball with minus-12 defensive runs saved.)
“I’m here to play any position they put me at,” Castro said. “I’m here to play anywhere.”
Even then, Castro needs to start hitting consistently before he can cement a guaranteed role for the future.
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.