The Detroit Tigers' middle infield of the future: Willi Castro and Kody Clemens?
LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire was hitting ground balls to shortstop Willi Castro on Monday morning when he noticed something significant.
Castro’s mechanics have improved tremendously.
“Some of the mechanical things that we talked about, about him having a hard time playing shortstop, they are gone — all in one winter,” Gardenhire said.
After seeing the improvements, Gardenhire is now convinced Castro can play shortstop in the big leagues.
“With those mechanics, he can do that," Gardenhire said. "Last year I said, ‘it’s not going to happen.’
“But he buried the ball and it’s pretty impressive.”
Gardenhire also has seen second baseman Kody Clemens make important strides defensively.
“He has really worked on his defense,” Gardenhire said. “He was real jumpy (last year), attacking everything real hard. He’s calmed down.”
The significance of those statements about Castro and Clemens can’t be overstated.
They could be the Tigers' shortstop and second baseman of the future.
“Those are the improvements that you just love,” Gardenhire said.
'The kid can hit'
Clemens has a special place in Gardenhire’s heart for one reason:
“He’s a (Texas) Longhorn,” said Gardenhire, a proud Longhorn himself. “Even if screws something up, I’m going to say that ball took a bad hop. Because he’s a Longhorn.”
Clemens, 23, is the No.17 prospect in the Tigers organization, according to MLB Pipeline. The Tigers took him in the 2018 MLB draft with the 79th pick after he hit .346 with 21 home runs at Texas.
“He has really worked on his defense,” Gardenhire said. “From last time I saw him until now, from last year in spring training, we got to see him quite a bit, taking ground balls. He was like — phfft. He wanted to wrestle the ball. He’s calmed down and gotten better at that.”
Clemens hit .238 at High-A Lakeland and then struggled in a short stint at Double-A Erie. Clemens hit .170 in 13 games in Erie. But Gardenhire is convinced Clemens can hit.
The son of seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, Kody has picked up two hits in three games in spring training.
“He’s game on — we have enjoyed watching him,” Gardenhire said. “The kid can hit.
He’s got that energy. He comes from a really good baseball background. And he’s a Longhorn, I don’t know if I can make that plain enough.”
'A talented kid'
Last year, Gardenhire was concerned about Castro’s defensive techniques because of a tendency to slide away from the ball as he caught it. Castro had a hard time breaking the habit.
But Tigers infield coach Ramon Santiago might have found the cure. Santiago is making Castro take grounders using a stiff, flat glove. It forces Castro to stay square to the ball and field the ball cleanly, instead of catching it to the side.
“He can’t slide through the ball right now,” Gardenhire said. “He has to center the ball. And everything else has gone away. I told Sante afterwards, ‘He’s got it. He can do that.' "
Castro is the No.11 prospect in the Tigers system.
“He’s a talented kid,” Gardenhire said. “Now, he’s made a mechanical adjustment. It’s really good. I'm excited for him because he’s made a great adjustment.”
Last year, Castro hit .301 at Triple-A Toledo. He struggled after getting called up to Detroit, hitting .230 in 30 games.
“He has an opportunity to be a shortstop here,” Gardenhire said. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen – injuries.”
Then, Gardenhire took it a step further. He suggested Castro could be the shortstop in Detroit this year, although it wasn’t clear whether he was talking about after an injury
“He has done something to put himself in the picture,” Gardenhire said.
It was a fascinating statement, not just in the short term, but for what it could mean for the rebuild. If Castro and Clemens keep improving, the Tigers might have found their middle infield of the future.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.