Remember Eric Munson? How about Travis Fryman? You probably remember one of them, or possibly both. Each was supposed to take care of third base for the Detroit Tigers for a decade. But, neither of them was a third baseman.
Munson, the third overall pick in the 1999 amateur draft and a standout collegiate player at USC, was converted to third base because the Tigers had Tony Clark and later Carlos Pena at his normal position – first base. Fryman was a shortstop who skyrocketed through the Detroit organization and was probably ready for the big leagues at the age of 20. But Alan Trammell was an All-Star at short, so the Tigs made Fryman a third baseman. It was one of many times a player has been asked to switch to third base. That lasted for a few seasons until Trammell stepped aside and once again third base was a vacant lot in Motown.
That might change in 2014 when Nick Castellanos gets his chance to play every day at third for new manager Brad Ausmus. Castellanos has impressed at every rung of the ladder, and he has a powerful swing that Detroit has been missing from a corner infield prospect for years.
The Tigers have had a rough time at the hot corner throughout their history, as Micheal Betzold recently pointed out in his article on the greatest third basemen in franchise history and I pointed out some time ago. Don Wert and Tom Brookens were products of the farm system but neither made anyone think of Mike Schmidt or George Brett. They were decent little ballplayers who fit in on championship teams. Aurelio Rodriguez was acquired via trade in the early 1970s and gave Detroit a gold glover at third with a golden arm, but he wasn’t homegrown. Even though the Tigers produced an amazing string of high caliber ballplayers in their farm system in the 1960s and 1970s, they never had a stud at third base. It got so desperate that Sparky Anderson even tinkered with moving Lou Whitaker from his slot at second base in 1985, but Sweet Lou wasn’t so sweet on that move and third base fell back to Brookens and a host of fill-ins. Munson never materialized as a third baseman or anything else for that matter, and the timing just wasn’t right for Fryman in Detroit.
Now that Miguel Cabrera has been returned to his more comfortable spot across the diamond, room has been cleared for Castellanos to man third base for Detroit, maybe for years to come. He’ll turn 22 in spring training, but despite his youth, Castellanos has an eye-popping swing that Tiger fans hope will launch line drives into the gaps at Comerica Park.
You’d have to go back to Scott Livingstone (yes, really) to find the most recent blue chip third base prospect to matriculate through the Tiger farm system. (Don’t talk Brandon Inge, he was a catcher who was converted to third base). Livingstone will never have a statue at Comerica Park, but when he came up with the Tigers more than 20 years ago, he was a hard-hitting young player who seemed to have a good future. Of course, Sparky fell in love with him, and after he hit .282 in his rookie season and made the Topps All-Rookie team, it seemed he’d stick around at third. But the gluttony of Fryman/Trammell left Livingstone on the outs, and he was traded to San Diego in 1994 for someone named Gene Harris. Ho hum and yawn. Since then, no other actual third baseman has come up through the Tiger ranks to claim the hot corner.
The job belongs to Young Nick, he of a .303 career batting average (in the minor leagues) and 18 homers last season at Toledo (a Mud Hen does not a Tiger make). How far he goes with his opportunity remains to be seen, but Castellanos deserves a full season to show what he can do. If he is able to adjust to the big leagues quickly, he’ll give the Tigs a good bat in the middle of their lineup.