Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch says Willi Castro ‘can help us win.’ What is he seeing?

Detroit Free Press

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Detroit Tigers utility player Willi Castro remembers the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year race.

“I always think about that,” Castro said.

His chances of winning the award were slim, simply because he didn’t play as many games as Seattle Mariners outfielder Kyle Lewis, the season-long frontrunner who secured all 30 first-place voices.

[ Home runs from Akil Baddoo, Isaac Paredes carry Tigers to 8-4 win vs. Blue Jays ]

Castro tied for fourth place with Oakland Athletics catcher Sean Murphy, finishing behind Lewis, Chicago White Sox outfielder Luis Robert and Houston Astros right-hander Cristian Javier.

Castro had a memorable season, hitting .349 with six home runs in 36 games and solidifying himself as the Tigers’ starting shortstop entering 2021. His .448 BABIP, though, was unsustainable, so few expected him to maintain a .350 batting average.

Still, the Tigers didn’t think Castro would fall as far as he did last season.

“Baseball is hard,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I know in the shortened COVID year, he performed pretty well, but to maintain his level of play at this level, it takes a lot of adjustments. I think rhythm and timing has gotten better.”

LOOKING BACK: Willi Castro: ‘Frustrating’ 2021 doomed by approach, chase rate

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Castro, 24, hit .220 with 15 doubles, six triples, nine homers, 38 RBIs, 23 walks and 109 strikeouts in 125 games. (His BABIP: .275.) He thought he deserved a demotion to Triple-A Toledo because of his lackluster performance, but to his surprise, the Tigers kept him in the big-league lineup.

And Castro, in his third MLB season, kept struggling.

The switch-hitter, a better contact hitter from the right side of the plate, demolished pitches down in the strike zone, but he swung (and missed) too often at pitches up in the zone and above the zone. He logged 80 hits on pitches in the middle, bottom and below sections of the strike zone, as opposed to 11 hits on pitches in the top and above sections.

“I’m focusing on selecting the good pitches,” Castro said. “That’s going to help me get less strikeouts. I know I’m a guy that was striking out a lot, so I’m trying to put the ball in play and see the results. … Just waiting on the pitch that I can hammer.”

Defensively, the Tigers want to increase Castro’s versatility.

A utility role is Castro’s best pathway to regular playing time with the 2022 Tigers; he could benefit from Opening Day rosters growing from 26 to 28 players as a product of the shortened spring training. He is hitting .273 in camp with one double, one triple, one walk and four strikeouts in five games.

Castro has looked around the field, and upon evaluating the potential starting lineup, realizes he is an odd-man out. 

Jeimer Candelario is at third base. Javier Baez is at shortstop. Jonathan Schoop is at second base. Spencer Torkelson is at first base. Akil Baddoo is in left field. Riley Greene is in center field. Robbie Grossman is in right field. Tucker Barnhart is the catcher.

“We see him a big-leaguer,” Hinch said of Castro. “I mean, there’s no question about it. He can do a lot of things on the field. … We love the bat potential. We need some of his strike-zone judgments to clean up a little bit. But we think he’s a big-leaguer, and we think he can help us win.”

Castro played three positions last season: second base (81 starts), shortstop (19 starts) and left field (10 starts). Growing his versatility means increasing his role in the outfield and adding third base to his portfolio. He needs to be serviceable at both second and third base.

The Tigers haven’t given up on Castro’s potential as an everyday player, but he needs more time to develop his all-around game and, at least for this season, will operate as a utility player.

“I know I have a lot to learn,” Castro said. “I don’t think I’m at my best right now. I know I’m going to show way more. I know my abilities, and I just got to stick to my plan and see where it goes.”

Headed to the backfields

The Tigers have an off-day Tuesday, but right-hander Casey Mize will make his third start in a game on the TigerTown backfields. Catcher Tucker Barnhart is scheduled to work with him.

Left-hander Tarik Skubal, who started Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, will make this third start Wednesday against the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater.

Mize, 24, has pitched five scoreless innings with two walks and nine strikeouts across two starts in spring training. He tossed three scoreless Thursday with six strikeouts.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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