By Ashley Dunkak
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – Even though Nick Castellanos had played shortstop all his years before moving to third base when he signed on with the Detroit Tigers at age 18, he was excited at the chance to learn the outfield.
“I knew they wanted to move me to the outfield so I could potentially play in the big leagues,” Castellanos said at Comerica Park on Thursday. “I would have never gotten called up in September, I don’t know, if I was playing third because with Miguel [Cabrera playing there] and everything, it just looked as though my road to the big leagues would have been a lot faster in the outfield than at third because of Miguel.
“When they moved me I was excited because it showed me that they wanted me in the big leagues; they were just trying to find a spot,” Castellanos added. “And now with Miguel going back to first and me going back to third, at this level, it’s awesome.”
A September call-up in 2013, Castellanos played left field in 11 games for the Tigers. Thanks to a trade that sent slugging first baseman Prince Fielder to Texas, Cabrera was able to move back to first base, so now third is open for Castellanos. After all his work learning the outfield, he will play third in the majors after all.
However, to skip over what appears to have only been a brief departure from the infield for Castellanos would be missing a major part of Castellanos’ journey to join the Tigers at Comerica.
Infield to Outfield – Not as Easy as It Looks
Switching from the infield to the outfield is hardly a cakewalk, a reality 21-year-old Castellanos discovered quickly.
“It was difficult,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh, just stick him out there and catch a fly ball.’ It’s a lot harder than that. You have to read balls and throws and everything, so it was difficult.”
Outfield coordinator Gene Roof, who worked with Castellanos daily on the transition that would eventually get Castellanos a chance in the majors, explained just what the switch from infield to outfield entails.
“The basic fundamentals is trying to get him comfortable where to play out there, depth perception – how far are you going to play, how deep are you going to play,” Roof said in a phone interview Monday. “That way you don’t embarrass yourself in the outside because the hardest thing to learn in the outfield is the angles and the flight of the ball. That comes with daily preparation every day, when it started back in Double A all the way to Triple A. I was with him on a daily basis.
“For the positioning and the different problems we would have, a couple things that we really worked hard on was his drop step, and his angles to the ball and running with a long stride,” Roof continued. “Then you just have to play. You have to gain the experience of playing out there and seeing balls hit at you.”
The extra time and effort to learn a totally new position did not seem to faze Castellanos in the least. He and Roof ran various drills at the home ballpark and on the road, even if opposing teams would only let them take the field early by about 15 minutes.
“The one thing that Nick has never done is complained about work,” Roof said. “Every day after the game is over, he’d ask me, ‘What time tomorrow? What are we doing?’ And that was always a pleasure for me because he knew the amount of time we were going to have to put in, and he was willing to do it, and not one time did he complain about the extra work or the work that we did.”
Little did Roof and Castellanos know that soon he would be back at third because of the Fielder trade that shocked many across the baseball landscape.
Fielder to Texas, Cabrera to First, Castellanos to Third
Castellanos does not have social media – “it’s just problems,” he says with uncommon wisdom – so the first he heard of the Fielder trade was when his father called as Castellanos was out to dinner with his fiancée’s family.
“My first reaction when my dad told me was, ‘Yeah right,'” Castellanos said. “Prince is one of our cornerstones for our franchise. How are we going to trade him?’ And then it was literally when I was on the phone with my dad, my phone started buzzing and buzzing and buzzing, and I started getting all these text messages, saying, ‘Oh, Prince is gone. Are you going back to third?’ ‘What’s the deal?’
“And I personally had no idea,” Castellanos added. “I didn’t know if I was going to go back to third. I didn’t know if we were going to sign [former Tigers shortstop Jhonny] Peralta to play third. There was a lot options there. I didn’t know which way the Tigers were going to go, but I’m happy they chose this one.”
Of course, going back to third means relearning that position, and it means not using his newly developed skills in left. Regardless, Castellanos remains grateful for Roof’s diligence.
“Geno would joke, he said, ‘We did all that work for five starts in the big leagues,’” Castellanos recounted with a smile. “But it was worth it because without all that hard work, who knows? I probably wouldn’t have got those five starts in the big leagues. It was worth it. It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of work.
“[Geno] spent a million hours with me in the outfield, literally probably over a hundred thousand fungos,” Castellanos added. “All the early work and all the time he put into me, he made me able to play outfield in the big leagues, so I know he was proud of that, and I was proud of how far I came with working with me.”
Going back to third necessitates an adjustment in reaction time, footwork and attention, Castellanos said. In those aspects, Castellanos says he has already improved thanks to the tutelage of new first base coach Omar Vizquel, the future Hall-of-Fame shortstop who earned 11 Gold Gloves in his 24-year career in the majors.
Castellanos has had two sessions with Vizquel so far, and even the limited time spent to this point seems to be paying dividends.
“I actually feel better now than when I played there before,” Castellanos said. “I’m paying so much more attention to detail, where I wouldn’t before, and I think that’s translated over into how well and how ready and my reaction time because I pay so much attention to my footwork, to making sure my feet are in place, now.
“Because of that, my hands are better,” Castellanos continued, “because I’m always in a really good spot to catch the ground ball, whereas before I would kind of just take it for granted – ‘Oh well, as long as I caught it.’ So I feel good. I feel ready.”
Whether Castellanos plays infield or outfield, Roof is happy for him.
“Any time that you’re working with somebody, whether it be Nick or anybody else in the organization, and you give them a chance to be in the big leagues, I know when he walked out of the manager’s office, he was like a little 2-year-old in a candy store,” Roof recalled. “He was fired up and hollering that he’s going to the big leagues, and that was pretty cool, to know that his hard work finally paid off.
“Nick is like all young players – they want to be in the big leagues yesterday,” Roof added. “When young players get to Double A and up, they’re ready to play in the big leagues – or they think they are. So you have to just kind of remind them as a coach, ‘Hey, keep going forward, we’ve got to keep working, wait ’til that phone call comes down the road.’ It was pretty cool to see that smile on his face and to see how happy he was.”