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We look at the centerpiece of the Detroit Tigers’ trade that sent Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to the Chicago Cubs – third baseman Jeimer Candelario, a Top-100 prospect who’s close to being MLB-ready. By Brian Manzullo, DFP.
Wochit

NEW YORK – Nick Castellanos knows what could happen.

When the Detroit Tigers traded for a few infield prospects in exchange for J.D. Martinez on July 18, all of whom were a ways away from the major leagues, his spot at third base was in no imminent danger.

But when they traded for third baseman Jeimer Candelario on Monday morning, a player widely considered to be on the cusp of consistent major league playing time, it officially was.

And Castellanos, who has matured over the first four seasons in his career, is OK with that.

“I know what it is,” he said. “At the end of the day, I don’t care what happens or where I play. I just want to win. I don’t care if I’m playing third, I don’t care if somebody else is playing third, I don’t care if I’m playing first, rightfield, or I pitch. Whatever makes the Tigers better.”

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It’s not hard to see the team’s thinking: Though Castellanos has improved defensively at third base, adding more range to his play, the results have not shown it. This season, he has tied a career-high with 15 errors – many of them throwing.

Candelario, Tigers general manager Al Avila said on Monday, is projected within the front office as a third baseman in the future.

“Our guys feel he can play a very good third base,” Avila said.

Iowa Cubs Third Baseman Jeimer Candelario (35) makes a catch on Tuesday, April 11, 2017, during the home opener baseball game between the Iowa Cubs and the New Orleans Baby Cakes at Principal Park. (Photo: Merle Laswell / For the Register)

Avila said the move had nothing to do with Castellanos and that the Tigers have no immediate plans to move him from his accustomed spot. But for the progress he has made, Castellanos has yet to establish a confidence within the front office that he is their third baseman now and in the future.

“Nick is at third base,” Avila said. “He’s our third baseman and we will continue to evaluate our players on the field and the players that we acquired and the players that are in the minor league system for the remainder of the minor league season, and then we’ll go into the off-season and see what we’re going to do as we move forward.”

Castellanos, whose bat will keep him in the lineup at one position or another, sounded open and even eager to a new challenge if that’s the direction the front office goes.

Asked if he was moved off third base, which position he would prefer, he stressed it wasn’t his call but that rightfield is probably where he would choose.

The Tigers don’t have a rightfielder penciled into their 2018 lineup. If Candelario is ready to play by then – which most evaluators believe – then that position change could be an optimal fit. Or, Justin Upton – if he does not exercise the opt-out clause in his contract – could move to rightfield and Castellanos to left, where he dabbled earlier in his minor league career.

The results of that experiment weren’t great. But this is a different Castellanos: He is no longer 20 years old and his body, at 25, has filled out by maximizing the athleticism he has.

“I think that with the shape I’m in right now and the way that I’m running and everything, I think if I got to choose, if I didn’t play third, I would play right,” he said. “Before, when I was younger and they moved me to the outfield, it’s not that I didn’t really want to do it, it’s just that I didn’t really know how to work and I’m nowhere near the shape I’m in now. So I think it would be a completely different animal, going in with the mentality and the drive to want to be good defensively than it was when I was younger.”

Evaluators are skeptical Castellanos will stick at third base. The Tigers, with their most recent move, seem so, too. A strong faction of evaluators believe he could end up at first base – with Miguel Cabrera moving to designated hitter – but there has been no evidence Cabrera’s defensive skills have declined. He is good there and first base is an underrated position: The vast majority of balls hit in the infield are handled by the first baseman.

Castellanos has done what he should to improve at third base. There are still evaluators who think he’s fine for the foreseeable future. But with Candelario waiting, Castellanos’ hold on the position is no doubt. A couple of years ago, Castellanos might have cared. Not anymore.

“The only thing the front office knows is I’m not scared to move,” he said. “I’m not scared of change. I’ve done it. They know what kind of guy I am.”

Castellanos came up as a shortstop. He was moved to third base then tried the outfield when both positions were blocked in 2012-13. Now, he’s at third base with maybe another move upcoming.

“I’ll play first, I’ll play third, I’ll play left or I’ll play right,” he said. “I don’t care. As long as the Detroit Tigers are winning, I’m happy.”

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Tigers general manager Al Avila answers questions after the trade deadline on July 31, 2017, in New York. Video by Anthony Fenech/DFP

Contact Anthony Fenech: afenech@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech.

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