As we’re at a standstill in terms of the hot stove, and don’t yet want to dive into full-on previews of the Tigers majors players, we’ll continue breaking down the Tigers projected bench options. There’s a decent mix of potential and depth both, and fine tuning the bottom of the depth chart always seems to prove more important than expected.
Utilityman Harold Castro has developed into a fascinating role player over the past couple years. Players with his profile rarely stick around this long. Typically teams keep bench players for their ability to add platoon power, defense at key positions, or speed on the basepaths. We tend to think of them as guys with strong secondary tools who never figured out how to hit with enough consistency to break into the everyday lineup. The 28-year-old Castro is a different breed.
While he remains a solid second baseman with some versatility around the diamond, Castro isn’t a plus defender. Nor does he meet the bare minimum qualifications for speed or power. In 231 major league games appeared in, he has just eight home runs and six stolen bases. Instead, he’s that rarest of profiles nowadays, the pure contact hitter.
That unique, throwback skillset has developed into a pesky weapon in its own right at times, and as manager A.J. Hinch learned to trust him over the course of the 2021 season, Castro played a substantial part in tying together a roster with numerous holes. As a result, the Tigers held onto him at the non-tender deadline, and he appears destined to earn a substantial raise in his first year of arbitration. That’s a lot more than was expected of him as he worked his way through the Tigers’ farm system as a confirmed role 4 type prospect.
Harold Castro 2019-2021
So, in this modern era, how does a player remain productive in a part-time role without power or speed? The answer lies in Castro’s batted ball data. He doesn’t hit the ball notably hard, his strikeout rate is good rather than great. and the occasional burst of average raw power that shocks pitchers remains rare. However, the Tigers’ utilityman sprays the ball around the field, never pops up, and keeps his fly ball rate relatively low. No qualified hitter in 2021 managed a line drive rate of 30 percent or better, yet Castro posted a somewhat astounding 33.7 percent mark over 339 plate appearances. Throughout his minor league career, Castro has posted well above average batting averages on balls in play (BABIP). The high line drive rate, and the ability to spray ground balls and flares toward whatever hole the defense leaves him, is the reason he’s carved out a nice little major league role.
As a hitter, Castro reminds me a little bit of Houston Astros’ outfielder, Michael Brantley. Sure, Brantley is a superior hitter with a smooth stroke, better hands, and more power than Castro. But their swings and approaches certainly show some similarities.
Both stay inside the ball well with smooth strokes and good balance, staying back on their rear foot and keeping their barrel relatively flat through the hitting zone with good extension. They don’t pull off the ball much, and they can slap fastballs on the outer edge to left field with some authority. The result is a lot of quality contact. Brantley typically hits for a good deal more power—though he only hit eight home runs in 2021—but even Castro will occasionally remind us he’s got more power in the tank than it seems.
Despite more raw power than one might expect based on his numbers, Castro doesn’t get to enough of it even to rack up a notable amount of doubles and triples in Comerica Park. He’s also pretty vulnerable to left handed pitchers and shouldn’t be facing them any more than necessary. On the plus side, he holds a career .291 batting average, which compares well with Brantley’s career .298 mark. Having posted high BABIP marks all the way back to his minor league days, Castro isn’t a fluke in this regard. And whether you look at his work against fastballs or breaking balls, the batting averages and power marks are all in the same tight, high average, low power grouping. His batted ball profile is simply well tuned to collecting hits over doing extra base damage.
The problem for Castro going forward remains that lack of damage. If he was an extremely low strikeout hitter who drew his share of walks, he might be able to survive as a spray-hitting singles generator. Unfortunately, the strikeout rate is good but nothing special, he rarely walks, and he doesn’t pack any of those extra tools. That’s just such a difficult profile to float these days without speed or elite defensive ability to back it up.
The trick for the Tigers, is that they’ve nearly reached the point in their buildup where their infield will be locked in once Spencer Torkelson arrives. Beyond him, the club has several other young infielders who have more potential value than Castro, even if they haven’t proved it yet. Isaac Paredes and possibly Willi Castro are still young enough to hope for a breakout. Ryan Kreidler, and possibly Kody Clemens, are going to run low on things to learn at the Triple-A level, and the Tigers would like to give them each a look this year. In particular, Kreidler, because he can play solid shortstop, is going to be the Tigers’ priority out of that group once they’ve determined he’s ready for a look at the show.
Holding all those players off may be a difficult task for Harold Castro in 2022. Fans should certainly hope so. Still, for now he has the inside track to a utility role. Spring training, assuming we get a semi-normal one, may tell a different story, but it’s not hard to see A.J. Hinch sticking with the veteran early on. As the season progresses, the urge to see some of their younger hitters against major league pitching may ultimately win out.
Castro’s skillset played into A.J. Hinch’s penchant for creativity and small ball where required in 2021, and fortunately for Castro, there were many opportunities for late innings heroics that didn’t require power, and he was able to deliver repeatedly. The baseball gods are unlikely to come down so heavily in his favor again, but with Javy Báez installed at shortstop, and Torkelson soon to follow, pushing Jonathan Schoop to second base full-time, there presumably will be a lot less need for the bench to get involved unless there’s a major injury along the way.
At 28 years old and entering his first arbitration year, it’s hard to expect the Tigers to hold onto Castro too much longer. He’s already been a nice low key success story who played a role in the Tigers resurgence in 2021. Expect to see him get his share of playing time in the early going, but Castro will have to squeeze everything out of his game this season to stick around.