Detroit Tigers: Nick Castellanos Still Has Everything Left to Prove


Nick Castellanos has shown improvement in each of his three seasons with the Detroit Tigers, but he still hasn’t proven himself to be a productive everyday third baseman.

Nick Castellanos had something of a breakout season for the Detroit Tigers in 2016. He added 30 points of both batting average and on-base percentage and 80 points of slugging compared to his 2015 numbers. His OPS has jumped from .700 to .721 to .827 in his three full major league seasons.

His fielding, which has always been a minus, has seemed to improve as well. His ultimate zone rating per 150 games has risen from negative 19 runs (relative to average at third base) in 2014 to negative 9.7 runs in 2016.

But, for all the improvement on both sides of the field, Castellanos has only managed to turn himself into a fringe-average regular in terms of total value. According to FanGraphs’ implementation of the WAR framework, Castellanos added 1.9 wins above replacement to the Tigers in 2016. That’s a big improvement over 2014’s -0.5 WAR performance (and 2015’s -0.1 WAR performance) but it’s not exceptional by any means.

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Baseball Reference is slightly more pessimistic on Castellanos’ current value but takes a more extreme view of his improvement. According to their implementation of the WAR framework, Castellanos was worth -1.4 WAR in 2014 and 1.6 WAR. That three win difference is massive even if he’s still not providing the total value we might want.

The general rule-of-thumb for field players is that an average player at any position would provide his team with two wins above replacement. Castellanos is in the neighborhood of average, if 2016 is an accurate reflection of his true talent level, but more improvement is necessary if he’s going to be the All-Star caliber player at which his prospect status hinted.

It’s easy to take his batting and fielding metrics, draw and upward trend, and predict further improvement for Castellanos in 2017 and beyond, but that’s not always how baseball works. It’s not even a given that his 2016 production level will continue into the future. Both the ZiPS and Steamer projections systems peg his batting line to regress from his .350 wOBA mark in 2016 to just below .330 in 2017.

Castellanos remains relatively young — he’ll be just 25 years old during the 2017 season — so improvement in plate discipline and power are still possibilities, but he’s probably closer to a finished product than a prospect at this point.

The Tigers maintain three years of team control on Castellanos (who will play his first of three arbitration years in 2017), so they’ll still have him for a few years at below market value wage rates, but the Tigers will need to decide if he’s their long-term solution at third base in the next year or two.

If they think he is, they might want to buy out a few of his free agent years with a contract extension before his on-field production make those too expensive.

If they don’t think he is, the might want to trade him while his contract still has surplus value. This proposition is even more likely if the Tigers find themselves out of contention as the trade deadline nears of if they’re serious about retooling the club next winter.

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The next few seasons are when Castellanos will begin to make his money as a professional. He’ll make a pretty penny in free agency if he can prove that he’s more than a fringe-average player. He hasn’t done that yet, so his long-term future with the club remains in doubt.