Not-so-highly-touted-but-still-good prospect Nick Castellanos made his full-season debut in 2014. I don't think I'd go so far as calling it an unmitigated disaster, but it was a disaster. Castellanos ranked 140th of 146 qualifying position players in fWAR, right below Ryan Howard, who's being paid a lot of money to be bad. Castellanos was below-average on offense and defense. Are there no reasons for optimism, and should we just say, "Next!" for the Tigers' third base position? Maybe not.
Castellanos produced a 94 wRC+, which isn't great. It's not awful, but it was equal to defense-first shortstop Alcides Escobar's wRC+. His walk rate was a lowly 6.2%, and his strikeout rate was a high 24.2%. That's not a great baseline from which to work, but his minor league walk rate was mostly 9.1% (3 different minor league lines on FanGraphs showed a 9.1% walk rate, which I found amusing). Castellanos has a chance to improve there. Castellanos will probably have strikeout problems, though. His minor league stats suggest as much, and he had an above-average SwStr%.
There is an interesting part of Castellanos' game that can help offset the high strikeout rate: Popups, or the lack thereof. FanGraphs tracks the rate of infield fly balls, and Castellanos ranked 12th with a miniscule 2.1% IFFB rate; the league average was 9.6%. According to Baseball Savant, Castellanos popped up only 10 times in 2014, which ranks pretty well among those who saw at least 1,000 pitches. While Castellanos might strike out about 4 percentage points higher than league average, he appears to make up for it by severely limiting popups. It is relatively rare to find a fly ball hitter (0.96 GB/FB compared to 1.30 league average) who can limit popups. Among those qualified batters with a GB/FB below 1, Castellanos had the lowest IFFB rate. This can be a repeatable skill, one that can help Castellanos maintain a workable baseline even if his strikeout rate doesn't improve.
A different part of Castellanos' game was the line drives. Castellanos had an astronomical 28.5% line drive rate, which ranked 2nd among all qualified hitters. Interestingly, when viewing that leaderboard, I noticed that Castellanos' batted ball profile is very similar to Freddie Freeman's, who is a pretty great hitter. Here is a comparison of each player's rookie year.
Here is a comparison of their batted ball profile in their rookie years.
Castellanos has a better batted ball profile already. Most players don't retain high line drive rates as a skill, but Freeman seems to have it down. His line drive rate has increased every year. That's not to say that Castellanos' will, but it does show that it is within the realm of possibility that Castellanos has a skill at hitting a high number of line drives. As Freeman has aged, his walk rate and strikeout rate have improved, and his popup rate has stayed low. Freeman is likely the ultimate offensive ceiling of Castellanos, but Castellanos has less power. If Castellanos' walk rate can improve just a little bit, he could really take a step forward offensively. I don't think Tigers fans would complain about a less-powerful Freddie Freeman manning third base...
...Unless Castellanos is really as bad as the numbers say he is at manning third base. The 2014 Royals showed what a highly rated defense can do in terms of run prevention, so defensive value shouldn't be dismissed. Castellanos, however, had net negative defensive value in 2014. He was last in DRS among qualified third basemen. He was last in UZR. He was last in converting the "Routine" plays as rated by Inside Edge. In fact, Castellanos had the worst non-catcher rate of converting the routine plays.
We know we need a large sample (~3 seasons) of defensive data to make firmer conclusions about a player's true defensive talent. But, wow, when all the sources agree that Castellanos is worse than a particularly immobile statue, the outlook isn't great. FanGraphs doesn't have the Fans' Scouting Report available for him yet (EDIT: Tom Tango's site does here), but that could shed more light on his defensive abilities, what with the wisdom of crowds and all.
Steamer projects Castellanos for a 105 wRC+ in 2015, as well as heavy regression in his defensive numbers. That adds up to a 1.8 fWAR projection -- quite realistic, unless Castellanos actually is terrible at defense. Given his ability to avoid popups and potential ability to hit lots of line drives, his batted ball profile could be solid. His strikeout rate and walk rate should improve as he evaluates how to improve this offseason.
This is probably another case of "Don't expect all rookies to become All-stars immediately". It's been said before, but we've been spoiled by guys such as Mike Trout and Jose Fernandez. Castellanos has realistic scenarios in which he becomes a decent player for the Tigers. To answer the question, yes, his season was really that bad. His next season might not be so bad.
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Kevin Ruprecht is an Editor of Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.