CINCINNATI — Nick Castellanos always wanted to be a franchise player for the Detroit Tigers.
“That’s ‘Plan A’: I never leave and I play 23 years in the big leagues here and I’m an unbelievable right fielder and now I’m in conversations with Al Kaline,” Castellanos said in January 2018 at TigerFest at Comerica Park. “That’s the dream. That’s the goal. That’s what I love.”
The Tigers opted for “Plan B.” The losses were piling up in 2019, swelling to 114 by the end of the season. Though, by that point, Castellanos had already said goodbye to the franchise that drafted him in the first round in 2010.
He was long gone.
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Minutes before stepping into the on-deck circle for a July 31, 2019, matchup with the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim, California, the Tigers scratched Castellanos from the lineup and traded him to the Chicago Cubs for a pair of pitching prospects: Alex Lange and Paul Richan.
Castellanos had spent seven years in the big leagues with the Tigers, making his MLB debut at 21 in September 2013. But this moment charged the course of Castellanos’ career. It meant he wouldn’t be a part of the future. Amid the worst year of the rebuild, the Tigers chose to deal him for prospects. It was a tough business decision.
“I think that’s all there is. It’s the nature of the business,” Castellanos said Saturday, standing outside the Cincinnati Reds’ dugout at Great American Ball Park. “Where I was in ’19, they didn’t feel like I was a piece they could build around. At the end of the day, all that did was put a little more gas on the fire.”
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Castellanos, now 29, is in his second season with the Reds, an All-Star for the first time in his career this year. He was in the final year of team control with the Tigers when his first franchise shipped him away to the Cubs. That winter, Castellanos inked a four-year, $64 million contract with the Reds.
Now he is doing exactly what he always hoped he would accomplish in Detroit.
Castellanos is leading the Reds’ postseason chase, hitting .320 with 33 doubles, 26 home runs and 78 RBIs over 115 games. Entering Monday, the Reds were in the National League’s second wild-card spot, a half-game behind the San Diego Padres for homefield advantage in the one-game playoff showdown. The Reds haven’t won a postseason series since sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1995 NLDS.
If that narrative changes in 2021, the city of Cincinnati will thank Castellanos (and potential future Hall of Famer Joey Votto, among others).
“The validation is I was right in believing in myself and who I am as a player,” Castellanos said. “It’s true, man, when you have a great players and the organization is in a time period where winning is not a priority, the culture can affect the spirit of the individual who is going out and playing every day.”
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In a quest for the playoffs, Castellanos’ Reds faced the Tigers for a three-game series from Friday through Sunday at Great American Ball Park. He spent Friday afternoon chatting with near-certain future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera and third baseman Jeimer Candelario. They used to be his teammates. He also checked in with head athletic trainer Doug Teter.
Castellanos learned a lot from Cabrera — who has played 14 of his 19 MLB seasons for the Tigers — during the “trial-and-error” stage of his career. From afar, he watched as the 38-year-old chased after 500 career home runs, becoming the 28th player in MLB history to reach the legendary feat Aug. 22 in Toronto.
“Of I course I was present to that,” Castellanos said. “That’s history, and Miggy is one of my favorite teammates I’ve ever had.”
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Before Cabrera crushed No. 500 on the road, the fans at Comerica Park stood in anticipation of history during each plate appearance in a six-game homestand from Aug. 13-19. The Tigers hosted 153,479 fans in those six games, averaging 25,580 per game.
The crowd topped out at 32,845 for an Aug. 14 win over Cleveland.
“That should show the league how important players are to baseball still, that you can’t live and die by analytical formulas and expect a city or people to relate to that,” Castellanos said. “If there is anything that Miggy’s quest to 500 should tell you, it’s that players are important to the game. They put the asses in the seats.”
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Castellanos understands this concept on a personal level, at least to an extent, because Cincinnati fans have poured into Great American Ball Park to witness his offensive production contribute to winning baseball.
Other teams have taken notice of his on-field developments, too. The Tigers, coincidentally, could use a power-hitting threat in the heart of the batting order to push for the postseason in 2022. (Detroit hasn’t made the playoffs since Castellanos’ first full season in 2014.)
But Castellanos — with an opt-out in his contract after this season — doesn’t care to discuss the future.
“Nothing you heard has come from my mouth,” Castellanos said. “Any speculation about free agency is nothing that’s come from my mouth. Right now, the only thing that’s next for me is focusing on winning here.
“We have a chance to win here. I’m not going to squander that opportunity by thinking about something that’s after the season.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.