It was a year to remember for top Tigers prospect Nick Castellanos on many levels.
Not only did he move up to Triple-A Toledo for the first time at just 21 years old, but he also made a move to the outfield as Detroit looked to ease the former third baseman's potential track to the Majors. Castellanos, who had developed a sterling reputation at the plate, didn't disappoint in the International League and put up a .276/.343/.450 line with 18 homers, 37 doubles and 76 RBIs. (The latter three numbers were Minor League career highs for the right-handed slugger.)
Detroit liked what they saw enough to call him when rosters expanded in September, just in time to join the club's chase for an American League Central Division title. He received started four games that final month and went 5-for-18 (.278) at the plate.
Although he was left off the postseason roster, Castellanos is a candidate -- perhaps the favorite -- to be named the Tigers' starting left fielder in 2014, barring other offseason moves.
But before that happens, MLB.com's No. 11 overall prospect caught up with MiLB.com about his move to a new position, his transition to Triple-A and the Majors, his relationships with some of the game's biggest names and what meant the most to him off the diamond in 2013.
MiLB.com: One of the big things coming into this season for you was the move to the outfield. How did you approach the position switch?
Castellanos: I think I approached it pretty well. They were trying to find a spot for me in the lineup with Prince [Fielder] signing and Miguel [Cabrera] moving over to third. I know I'm not going to be playing third base as long as Miguel is in the organization, so when they approached me to make the move, I knew it was just about trying to find a spot for me, and that was easy to take. It's going to be my best path to the big leagues right now, and that's a good thing. I do miss third base, though. Eventually at some point, I'd love to go back.
MiLB.com: How long did it take to you get to comfortable out there in left field?
Castellanos: It was difficult at the beginning, to be honest. I had never played outfield in my life before that. It's not like I was trying to learn shortstop again, like I did in high school, or making a move over to second. I had never done that in my life, so it was a different feeling out there. I felt uncomfortable at the beginning, with the game being so far away. But I have to give credit to our outfield coordinator, Gene Roof. He spent all day and all night with me trying to get everything down, and I feel much better out there.
MiLB.com: Another part of the transition was the move up to Triple-A Toledo. What was that like?
Castellanos: I had to mature a lot more up there, that's for sure. You're facing great pitchers, day in and day out. In Triple-A ball, every guy you're facing has their approach down and knows exactly what they'll do with you when you come up to the plate. Plus, the bullpens in Triple-A are just day-and-night better than the ones you're facing at the lower levels. You just have to get a feel for some of the flamethrowers, make adjustments like anywhere else and be prepared for what you'll see.
MiLB.com: That being said, you were able to handle Triple-A pitching fairly well. Why was that?
Castellanos: I think that just goes to my confidence at the plate. All I need are at-bats and a little bit of time, and things usually get around to where they need to be.
MiLB.com: Where does that confidence and your general hitting prowess come from?
Castellanos: Most of it is that I'm always working on hitting. I've been hitting all the time since I was little, since I started playing really. I'm always trying to learn about the game I love, and the only way I can do that is to keep working hard at it. With that, whether I'm 0-for-4 or 4-for-4 on a given day, I'm still having fun at the plate because I like it so much up there. That amount of fun contributes to my success a little. I don't mind putting work in because I enjoy it that much.
MiLB.com: Because of that hitting ability, you were able to get a callup to the Tigers in September during their playoff run. Describe that experience.
Castellanos: Just because who I am, I wish I got to play more when I was there, but they were competing to finish first in the division and stuff, so that happens. I got to start four games, and I was pretty happy with the way I hit when I did start. But for me, playing off the bench is difficult, you know? When I come to the park, I'm ready to go and want to get out there. I got some pinch-hit at-bats in the seventh inning or later, so that was something I had to get used to -- preparing starting in the sixth, being on call, stuff like that. But above all, it was about getting used to the Major League life -- the plane rides, what time to get to the field, what to do in the pregame. It was a good learning experience for that stuff.
MiLB.com: One of the things about joining that Tigers team, too, is that it's a squad that is heavy with veterans. Was there anyone you sought out in particular?
Castellanos: First, everybody in that locker room is such a great guy. It's easy to come into as a rookie because of that. But one guy that's super-knowledgeable and just a super guy overall is Torii [Hunter]. He makes himself so open and so approachabl,e not only to the veterans but to the rookies like myself, too, and that's a big help.
MiLB.com: What did you talk to him about specifically?
Castellanos: Above all, they were mostly outfield questions. I'd watch him out there and then try to pick his brain about why did he go after a ball here and why did he go that way there. The thing about Torii is that he picks up pitches so well. So if I saw him do something that I wouldn't have seen otherwise, I tried to talk to him about it. Overall, he just makes the game fun. He's been in the game for 17, going on 18 years, so it's great he can share stuff with me.
MiLB.com: Besides Hunter, it must have been interesting to play with Miguel Cabrera, not only because of who he is, but because you're a guy from the Miami area.
Castellanos: It is pretty wild. In '03, I watched the World Series with him in it, and I was actually there when he went "oppo" against Clemens after he threw at him. I was idolizing Cabrera when I was little, and then the first run I scored in the Majors was driven in by Miguel. It's cool how everything comes full circle like that. Being 10, 11 and watching him play and now I'm with him on the field. Beyond that too, Alex Fernandez -- my coach in high school -- won a World Series with Jim Leyland, and I played under him too. Just cool how that all happens.
MiLB.com: Speaking of Leyland, you got to play under him right before he retired. What was that like?
Castellanos: Leyland is very professional in everything he does. From a player's perspective, he's fun to watch and has been doing it for so long. I think someone said that he's filled out something like 4,800 lineup cards in his career. Anyone with that much experience in baseball, you know you have to listen and respect what they do. I feel like I know so much about baseball already. But compared to Leyland, and beyond that, [bench coach Gene] Lamont and [former hitting coach and recently named Mariners manager Lloyd] McClendon? I don't know anything. All I can do is watch them, learn and see how Jim would manage a game, even if that meant sitting there thinking, "Why would he do this?" Being around him, I was able to just add a lot of knowledge that wasn't there.
MiLB.com: Leyland's also known in baseball circles as a fairly colorful character. Got any good Leyland stories?
Castellanos: The biggest thing that comes to mind is one day [Sept. 4] we got beat pretty bad by the Red Sox. It was the day [David] Ortiz got his 2,000th hit, and we lost by a lot [20-4]. I went into the clubhouse thinking, "Man, if we're in Toledo right now, we're going to get chewed out." And then he walks in and just says, "Well, tomorrow's a great day for an off-day, huh?" And that was it. It was really loose and easy, and it was his way of telling us to pick up our heads and keep on pushing through because there were a lot of other big games coming up.
MiLB.com: After those big games were through, the Tigers moved onto the playoffs, but you were left off the postseason roster. How did you handle that?
Castellanos: It was pretty nerve-racking, knowing I couldn't help or contribute in any way. All I could do is watch from my living room in Miami. There were even a couple of times I had to turn off the TV because I couldn't watch anymore.
MiLB.com: Many see you as likely to be on the big league roster come Opening Day. How do you approach the offseason with that in mind?
Castellanos: Pretty much like any other offseason really. I don't want to put any added pressure on myself. I just have to work hard and be ready come spring, just like I always have.
MiLB.com: If it does come down to it, that you are the starting left fielder for the Tigers on Opening Day, how ready do you feel for that opportunity?
Castellanos: Oh, 100 percent. With the instruction I've gotten from the people that have helped me in the outfield, I know I'm ready. I know I can help the team right now. It's tremendously exciting to think about. Any time you play in the big leagues is a great opportunity, and I'm ready to do that every day.
MiLB.com: With all this being said, probably the biggest thing to happen to you this year was the birth of your first child. Does Liam have a bat in his hand yet?
Castellanos: No, he's only three months so he hasn't touched anything yet, but he does have a couple of gloves and a couple of bats with his name on them already. When he was born, that was better than the big leagues. My Major League debut was on Sept. 1, and my son was born Aug. 1. I was there when he was born, but on the morning of Aug. 3, I had fly back to Toledo and didn't get to see him again until Sept. 1. When I did get that callup, all the reporters were asking me, "How did you feel about your Major League debut?" What I really wanted to say was I just want to spend time with my son.
It definitely puts your perspective on an 0-for-4 day, I'll tell you that. Whether I'm 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, I still have a beautiful, healthy son that I care a lot about. To strike out with the bases loaded or make an error in the field, it doesn't mean so much anymore.