Batting practice at the All-Star Futures Game can degenerate into an impromptu home run derby. Most prospects, in their first moments on a truly national stage, find it impossible to resist the urge to discard their usual routines, and instead resort to attempting to crush ball after ball over the wall, to display the power that they hope will soon carry them to their big league debuts.
Nick Castellanos, the 20-year-old Tigers prospect, can hit home runs, too. But in the hours before this year's Futures Game on July 8, as the players before and after him assaulted the outfield seats in Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium, he didn't. Instead, the 6'4", 210-pound Castellanos does what he always does in BP: he hit line drives, with metronomical consistency, more often than not the opposite way. This momentarily disconcerted even the man who first taught Castellanos his measured approach -- his father, Jorge.
"I'm watching everybody else hit 'em out," Jorge -- pronounced "George" -- recalls. "I'm like, 'Just hit one over the wall!' He can do it, but he doesn't. He's working on getting the barrel to the ball."
The younger Castellanos's discipline paid off, as it so often has for him, and he ended the day as the star of the future stars. He went 3-for-4 with, yes, a three-run home run, and earned the game's MVP award. It ranked as yet another accomplishment in what has been a breakout season for Castellanos, who was the 44th pick in the 2010 draft, and who was prior to the reason ranked as the game's 45th best prospect by
Castellanos is playing, in other words, like a prospect whose days in the minor leagues will soon be numbered. But certain obstacles stand in his path to reaching Detroit and helping the Tigers chase their first World Series title since 1984. One is that he is naturally a third baseman, and the Tigers' current third baseman, the annual MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera, isn't going anywhere anytime soon. To that end, the organization recently moved Castellanos to rightfield, a move that he embraced.
"My view of that is, the Tigers have a great lineup," Castellanos says. "For me to crack it, I'm going to have to feel really happy, because that's going to say something about myself. A lot of people say, 'Don't you wish you played for a team that didn't have anybody?' Not really, because when I get up there, I want to contend right away. Whether I'm playing third, second, outfield, pitcher, catcher."
Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers general manager, says his club does not yet have a firm plan for promoting Castellanos to to the majors. "I am not sure what his time of arrival will be," wrote Dombrowski in an email to SI.com. "We are not anticipating him being up in the next month or two, but you never know."
Indeed, if Castellanos keeps producing as he has, there is only one reason to think that he might not be roaming rightfield in Comerica Park very soon. That is, as the July 31 trade deadline approaches, he now ranks as the club's premier trading chip, and the Tigers -- whose owner, Mike Ilitch, has a win-now mentality that is appropriate for a man of 83 -- have never been overly reluctant to sacrifice even very promising minor leaguers for mature and immediate help.
Last Monday, for instance, they traded their top pitching prospect, Jacob Turner, as well as Triple-A catcher Rob Brantly -- who batted directly behind Castellanos in the Futures Game, and who was perhaps his closest friend in the minors ("Going from dorm rooms in Tiger Town to Kansas City, we were joking about how far we've come," Castellanos says of their discussions earlier this month") -- to the Marlins, for a pair of veterans, starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante.
Still, says Tigers assistant GM Al Avila, "I would say the probability is when you see him in the big leagues you will see him in Detroit."
"Clubs ask about him all the time," adds Dombrowski. "But I do not anticipate trading him. I do not like to use the word 'untouchable,' but he would not be easy to trade."
Castellanos is well aware that no Tigers farmhand is truly untouchable, and so are his teammates in Erie. "Sometimes they'll say in the locker room, 'Pack up your stuff, you're going to Philadelphia,'" he says. "Or, 'Pack up your stuff, you're going to Toronto or Houston.' I don't get too caught up in it. Nothing's reality until it happens. Worrying about me getting traded isn't going to help me perform in my game that night. If I just take care of each game I play in, where I am is going to take care of itself.'"
That precocious focus is one reason why Castellanos has so far proven unflappable as a pro, even under the Futures Game's spotlights. It was first instilled in him long ago, in the backyard batting cage that Jorge, a pulmonologist whose family escaped from Cuba when he was 6, constructed for Nick when he was in elementary school. "When he got home from school every day, once his homework was done, we'd go out there, and I'd pitch to him," Jorge says. "An hour and a half, two hours every day."
Castellanos is a righthanded hitter, and he credits, in part, his father's funky, lefthanded, three-quarters delivery with his advanced ability to hit to all fields. "I grew up hitting baseballs to the opposite field before I even knew it was a good thing," he says. "That's something that I really like, getting the ball deep, seeing it better."
"This is not something that's easy," says Tommy Martinez, a former Indians farmhand who privately tutored Castellanos in the art of hitting three times a week as he rose up the youth baseball ladder, and who refined his opposite-field stroke. "You're going to take a lot of power away, but you're going to hit with better batting average, you're going to produce RBIs. When I look at Nick, the way he hits, I see Jeter sometimes -- but with more pop."
Says Avila, "Most young players show their power to the pull side. That's just a natural thing. Castellanos, at a very young age, is able to drive the ball to right-centerfield, and has showed us the power to hit it over the wall that way at 20 years old. He's doing it as if he's a veteran-type guy. And there's more power in the tank, that's developing. He's a premium hitter that has the potential to be an All-Star type player."
Perhaps Castellanos's greatest strength is his ability avoid dreaming about his future All-Star days, in Detroit or elsewhere. He is focused, most of all, on the day-to-day processes that might get him there, on taking the same consistent approach to each pitch he sees, no matter the stage, setting or situation in which he sees it, no matter where he's playing in the field. As his father says, "You let him hit, he'll go anywhere."