Acquired from Cleveland in exchange for center fielder Leonys Martin at the July 2018 trade deadline, general manager Al Avila didn’t shy away from boasting about his upside then. He projected Castro as “a good, everyday shortstop.”
Despite defensive concerns, Castro, 24, hit .349 and tied for fourth in 2020 American League Rookie of the Year voting.
“Shortstop is, other than catching, probably the most demanding position on the field,” Avila said in January. “He’s got the potential to do it, and we think he can, so he’s going to have a chance.”
Tigers manager AJ Hinch added his opinion in late February: “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. And then offensively, he’s got a little flick. The ball sounds a little different off his bat, in a good way.”
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But Castro’s 36-game sample in 2020 was not repeated this year.
He finished 2021 with a .220 batting average, nine home runs, 38 RBIs, 23 walks and 109 strikeouts over 125 games. Because of continued defensive woes, he didn’t last long at shortstop. Hinch moved him to second base in late April, then to the outfield midway through August.
One year after being the potential shortstop of the future, Castro can’t be counted on as anything more than a utility player heading into 2022.
“Willi Castro, obviously, we feel he’s got a lot of physical ability,” Avila said Oct. 5, after the Tigers finished 77-85 this season for the team’s best record since 2016. “The guy has power. He runs very well. We feel that he’s got all the athletic ability and the tools to be a good player.
“He hasn’t put it all together yet. The hitting hasn’t come around. He still makes probably too many errors for our liking. But he’s still young enough. He’s still athletic enough. He’s got the tools to work with, so he’s still a work in progress at this point.”
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Castro sat in the dugout Oct. 3 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, ahead of the Tigers’ final game of the regular season, to reflect on his third season in the big leagues. (Before his 36 games in 2020, he made his MLB debut and played 30 games in 2019.)
If Castro were on the stock market, he said his performance in 2021 would include “more downs” than ups on the chart. He admitted it “wasn’t a good year for me” but also focused on the positives, such as making slight defensive improvements at second base and learning to play the outfield.
“I know it wasn’t my best year,” said Castro, who had minus-12 defensive runs saved, including minus-8 DRS at second base. “AJ gave me the opportunity to play, even when I was struggling this year. I struggled. The good thing is every time I come out here, I’m just excited to see what’s going to happen each day. I’m always expecting something new. … Learning those two positions made it a really good year for me. I was trying to get better every day.”
The Tigers never banked on Castro becoming an above-average defender, due to his poor footwork and substandard throwing accuracy, but they were counting on his offensive production.
Back in 2020, Castro’s minus-8 DRS was second-worst among MLB shortstops, but his AL Rookie of the Year candidacy overshadowed the demerit. This time around, his poor defense collided with an inconsistent approach at the plate.
“It was really frustrating,” Castro said. “I got to work on being consistent. That’s the stuff the past few years I’ve had issues with. But this year, the whole year was like that. I was trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.”
This season, Castro hit .201 against fastballs (.361 in 2020), .232 against breaking balls (.325 in 2020) and .253 against off-speed pitches (.357 in 2020). To go with his .220 batting average, he had a .273 on-base percentage.
“I need to stick to my approach, what I want to do, what pitch I want to do damage on,” Castro said. “If I’m going to look fastball away, I’m only going to swing at that fastball away. I’m not going to swing at anything else. … Sometimes going up to the plate, you’re thinking about mechanics and want to swing at everything. When you’re struggling, you just want to get hits. And it’s not easy, you know? I know I will get it right this offseason. I’m working on some stuff so I can get back to who I was last year.”
As a switch-hitter, Castro hit .193 with 87 strikeouts in 285 at-bats as a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitchers. When facing lefties, he managed a .281 batting average with 22 strikeouts over 128 at-bats from the right side of the plate.
Castro ranked in the bottom 5% of MLB with an 85.6 mph average exit velocity, and his 39.9% chase rate put him in the bottom 2% of the league in that category. He also had a 24.2% strikeout rate and 5.1% walk rate. Simply put, he whiffed at bad pitches, struck out a lot, didn’t draw enough walks and lacked power.
“That’s something really small that makes a big difference in the game,” Castro said. “It’s my bat angle, especially hitting left-handed (against right-handed pitchers). We see a lot more right-handers, so you got to be more prepared and work more from the left-handed side. I’m dropping the barrel. That’s a little thing that I got to get better on.”
Castro reached a low-point in July. The Tigers demoted him to Triple-A Toledo on July 16 and, after he hit .391 in five games for the Mud Hens, called him back to the big leagues because of an injury to 22-year-old infielder Isaac Paredes.
Upon returning, his struggles continued.
“That was the most frustrating thing,” Castro said. “Doing good for five days, then going into a slump again, and then good for two days, and then going back into a slump. I just think it’s consistency. That’s the main stuff I’ll be working on in the offseason.”
For advice, Castro turned to his father.
Liliano Castro, now 52, played for the Tigers in the late 1980s but didn’t advance past Class A in the minor leagues. He reminded his son that he has “always been a free hitter,” meaning he is at his best when he doesn’t think too much about his mechanics.
Castro aims to get back on track this winter, headlined by an appearance in the Dominican Winter League for Leones del Escogido.
“I’m going to focus on not dropping my barrel,” Castro said. “I’m going to keep working on my second base and left field. I told (the Tigers) that I want to keep learning more. Hopefully, we do good and come back next year stronger.”
The clock is ticking, but the Tigers aren’t ready to make long-term conclusions. They still have high hopes for Castro’s potential. And the way he sees it, being a utility player gives him something to prove in 2022.
“For me, it was good and bad,” Castro said. “I’m going to be working this offseason on my offense, on the hitting side. That’s something that’s going to keep me in this game for a long time. … I know the talent that I have. Every player goes through this. I know I’ll get it right. Next year, I will come ready and prepared.”