Willi Castro, the outfielder, might have played himself off Tigers’ roster bubble

Detroit News

Detroit — A week ago, it seemed a foregone conclusion that when Victor Reyes was ready to come off the injured list, Willi Castro would be optioned back to Toledo to clear a roster spot.

Now? It seems unfathomable that Castro would be sent back.

“Willi’s played very well the last few days and opened up some eyes and kind of flashed the abilities he’s shown over the last couple of years, to where it’s warranted him being part of the rotation,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I believe in the player. He can offer a lot.”

With Reyes injured and Akil Baddoo struggling and optioned to Toledo, the Tigers moved Castro to the outfield out of necessity. Other than the expected hiccup or two, he’s looked comfortable.

“It’s pretty fun for me,” Castro said. “It’s really nice to be playing all over the place. I think it opens more doors for players to be utility. It feels good. I feel like I made the adjustment fast. It feels natural. I just need to keep working to be better.”

He has seemed most comfortable in center field rather than left, which is understandable. There isn’t as much hook and slice to read in center field. There is also more room for him to correct slower reads with his speed.

“There is still a lot of work to do,” Hinch said. “We have to balance where he’s at developmentally and when to put him out there every single day … But he has some natural outfield actions that George (Lombard, outfield coach) and I like. And he finds a way to get hits. That’s the other part of it.

“We are searching for anyone to spark us.”

The switch-hitting Castro, though he’s not exactly hitting missiles all over the place, got seven hits in the five-game series with Oakland. The average exit velocity on balls he’s put in play is a light 82 mph, yet he came into the game Friday hitting .325 with a 128 OPS-plus on the season.

He’s also an outlier in the Tigers’ lineup, in that he’s one of the few hitters doing damage against fastballs (.450).

“I haven’t forgotten the success he had in the short season (.349 in 2020),” Hinch said. “Coming into last season, we were relying on him to play in the middle of the field and bat in the middle of the order. Some of that regressed last year and he didn’t have the consistency that you’d want.

“But right-handed, his swing is pretty dangerous and left-handed, the power is there. He has a lot to learn, but there is a valuable player in there. When you have somebody you can move around the field and be at least a part-time everyday player, if that makes any sense, that’s hard to find at a time when you are shortening rosters to 12 position players.”

Castro was in the lineup in left field Friday, with left-handed-hitting Austin Meadows unavailable against right-handed starter Jordan Lyles.

Meadows fighting it

Austin Meadows can’t seem to shake this allergy-sinus ailment. It cost him three games in Houston, and he didn’t even make it to the ballpark Friday.

“Yeah, he’s not here,” Hinch said. “He keeps having this recurring inner-ear infection. His balance is bad. He’s dizzy. He’s got sickness. He’s unavailable.”

Meadows saw a doctor Friday morning and then called Hinch to tell him he was out.

“He’s really in a bad place,” Hinch said. “We hope it’s just a day, but we’ll see.”

Inauspicious rehab debut

Right-hander Casey Mize’s first rehab start for Triple-A Toledo was forgettable. He got just two batters out, giving up four hits and three runs. He threw just 29 pitches.

“It went nothing like he wanted,” Hinch said. “He was a little tentative going into the game. I watched some of the video of it. Any time you come back for the first time after an injury (elbow sprain), it’s somewhat expected.

“I think he’s feeling fine, just going through that process of the first time in his career being injured and trying to get back into competition.”

Hinch said Mize will throw a bullpen in a couple of days, then the club will decide whether he makes his next start for the Mud Hens on time or if it gets pushed back.

Tigers claim LHP reliever

On Friday, the Tigers claimed 29-year-old left-handed reliever Sam Howard off waivers from Pittsburgh and optioned him to Toledo. He’s pitched parts of five seasons in the big leagues for Colorado and the Pirates.

“He really handles left-handers effectively and he’s got a good arm,” Hinch said. “And he’s got options. We’re always looking to upgrade things.”

Having minor-league options is key. At the end of the month, the Tigers, like every team in baseball, will be limited to 13 pitchers.

“When we get down to 13 pitchers and 13 position players, it’s going to be important to have roster guys who can go up and down,” Hinch said. “We won’t be able to offset pitching needs by demoting position players.”

Howard, who is a two-pitch pitcher — 91-mph four-seam fastball and slider — has an ERA over 5.0 and a WHIP over 1.5 in his time in the big leagues.

“We’re going to try to untap his potential of being a better strike-thrower and getting right-handed hitters out, as well as lefties,” Hinch said.

The Tigers still have one spot open on the 40-man roster.

Around the horn

Right-hander Drew Hutchison, designated for assignment by the Tigers earlier this week, cleared waivers Friday. He has elected to be a free agent and seek an opportunity with another organization.

… Baddoo has not been in the lineup for Toledo the last couple of days. Hinch said he’s battling a non-COVID illness. He returned to the lineup Friday.

… Outfielder Riley Greene (broken foot) was cleared to begin a full running program. He’s been running in a pool and on an Alter-G treadmill. He will also gradually ramp up baseball activity, too.

… Catcher Tucker Barnhart has heated up at the plate. Since starting the season 2-for-18, he’s slashing .333/.346/.392 over his last 16 games. Among the 34 catchers across baseball with at least 30 at-bats over that stretch of games, Barnhart is tops in average and hits (17).

Orioles at Tigers

First pitch: 4:10 p.m. Saturday, Comerica Park, Detroit

TV/Radio: BSD/97.1

Scouting report:

LHP Bruce Zimmermann (2-1, 2.67), Orioles: He’s crafty. Pitching off a 90-mph four-seam fastball and an above-average change-up and slider, he’s inducing a 33.5% whiff rate, striking out 30 with just eight walks in 30⅓ innings. Good day to sit the left-handed hitters; they are 3-for-20 against him.

RHP Michael Pineda (1-2, 3.43), Tigers: He’s coming off a quality start against the Athletics, allowing just two runs over 6⅔ innings. His slider has been filthy. Hitters are 2- for-18 against it, swinging and missing at a 31.4% clip.

cmccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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