Castro has tools to become Tigers’ SS of future

February 28th, 2019

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Alan Trammell was roving around the Tigers organization as a special assistant when he saw Detroit’s shortstop of the future. He just didn’t know it yet. For that matter, neither did the Tigers.

Trammell was working with Tigers prospects at Class A West Michigan in 2016 when the Indians’ Midwest League affiliate, the Lake County Captains, came to town with a teenage shortstop named Willi Castro.

“I saw them play a few times, and I remembered him,” Trammell said. “He was very talented. He was very thin at that time.”

Castro, who is No. 7 on the Tigers' Top 30 Prospects list, was a Midwest League All-Star. Despite a .259 average and .657 OPS, the switch-hitter could leg out extra bases. His fielding, meanwhile, was his calling card.

By the following season, Castro was a top 10 prospect in the Indians' farm system according to MLB Pipeline. But he was a shortstop in the same organization where Francisco Lindor had just become a superstar in Cleveland.

“There's so many good players in the big leagues [there] like Lindor, Jose Ramirez,” Castro said. “There’s a lot of talent over there. I think it’s a better opportunity for me to be here, in this organization.”

No matter how much Castro developed in the Indians' system, that wasn’t going to change. So, when the Indians were looking for outfield help at last summer’s non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Tigers traded Leonys Martin in return for Castro.

Trammell remembered the name and took a look.

“I was very anxious to see him from the last month and a half or so that we had him in the organization,” Trammell said. “I like to see these guys competing with the big boys. I wanted to see how they act, how they go about their business.

“He’s a Major Leaguer. No doubt, he is. The way he carries himself, I can see he wants it. Whether or not it happens this year, we’ll see. But he’s close.”

The Tigers have been stockpiling middle-infield prospects for more than a year. They traded J.D. Martinez for three shortstops in July 2017, and grabbed power-hitting teenage shortstop Isaac Paredes from the Cubs in the Alex Avila/Justin Wilson deal a few weeks later. Castro is the one they believe has the offense-defense combination to be an everyday shortstop in the Majors.

Castro said he was sleeping when the Indians called him the morning of July 31 to tell him he’d been traded. The deal served as a wake-up call for him.

A switch-hitter with relatively even splits, Castro hit .324 (34-for-105) with 15 extra-base hits and a .928 OPS for Double-A Erie last August following the trade, earning a promotion to Triple-A Toledo in the middle of the Mud Hens’ run to the International League playoffs. He went 6-for-21 down the stretch, then 5-for-16 in the Hens’ playoff loss to Durham.

“Offense, I have to get better,” he said. “Every year I come to Spring Training, I feel better. I'm trying to keep my focus, keep my head up and work on my little things until I get better.”

Defensively, he continued his quest for more consistency, dropping his error totals from 25 in 2016 and 2017 to 15 last year.

While Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison reprise their double-play duo role in Detroit, the Tigers are also taking a good look at Castro. On days when Mercer hasn’t played, Castro has, including the start in Thursday’s game against the Braves at Champion Stadium, where Castro connected on a first-pitch breaking ball from Sam Freeman and lofted it over the left-field fence for his first home run of spring.

Castro added a nice backpedaling catch on a tricky line drive from Charlie Culberson, just beyond the infield dirt.

“He has no fear,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said of the 21-year-old. “He’s not coming in here with his eyes real big or anything like that. He’s gone about it really well. He’s well-spoken. He asks questions, like when we’re doing fundamentals. He can flat-out throw you the exact answer, because he’s listening to what we’re saying.

“He’s talented, very talented. He can swing the bat. He’s got a cannon for an arm. He’s a good-looking baseball player.”

And he’s taking big league camp with a maturity beyond his age.

“When I watch kids playing with these guys, it’s all business,” Trammell said. “Not that you can’t have fun and joke around, but when it’s your turn to do your drill, it’s all business. That’s what I’m looking for.”

That approach from Castro is by design.

“I'm trying to focus on the little things to get better every day,” he said. “As a player, you try to go to the field and work on something you have to get better at.”

It won’t get him to Detroit right away. It might get him to Comerica Park for the stretch run if the Tigers trade Mercer at the Deadline. And at some point, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Castro looking at Lindor from the opposite dugout.

Castro won’t be wondering what-if.

“I wasn't going to have the chance like I have here,” Castro said. “I think I feel better here.”