Detroit Tigers in winter leagues: Willi Castro drives in Albert Pujols with late-game HR

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Detroit Tigers infielder Willi Castro stepped to the plate Saturday with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, with Leones del Escogido looking to avoid a shutout against Estrellas de Oriente in the Dominican Winter League.

Future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols — a 21-year MLB veteran and three-time National League MVP — opened the ninth by drawing a seven-pitch walk. He stood on second base while Castro faced right-handed reliever Diogenes Almengo, a 26-year-old who reached Triple-A Norfolk for the Baltimore Orioles in 2021.

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Swinging from the left side of the plate, the switch-hitting Castro smoked a 2-0 pitch over the wall in right-center field for a two-run home run, cutting his team's deficit to 5-2. Although Leones del Escogido couldn't complete the comeback, Castro picked up his first hit this winter.

Pujols waited for Castro at home plate, then greeted him with a high five and words of celebration on their way back to the dugout.

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Through five games in the Dominican Winter League, the 24-year-old Castro is hitting .222 (4-for-18) with one home run, two RBIs, one stolen base and two strikeouts, giving him a .300 on-base percentage and .389 slugging percentage.

After Castro's home run in Saturday's game, he went 3-for-5 in Sunday's 9-7 loss to Toros del Este.

Defensively, Castro has operated at shortstop in his past two games. He spent the first three games of his offseason assignment at second base. Known for below-average defense in the big leagues, he has one error in 27 innings at second base but hasn't made a mistake in his 16 innings at shortstop.

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Detroit Tigers Willi Castro reacts to hitting a solo home run in the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels in Detroit, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021.
Detroit Tigers Willi Castro reacts to hitting a solo home run in the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels in Detroit, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021.

Castro recently finished his third MLB season with a .220 batting average, nine home runs, 38 RBIs, 23 walks and 109 strikeouts in 125 games. Back in 2020, he hit .349 with six homers, 24 RBIs, seven walks and 38 strikeouts, as well as tying for fourth place in American League Rookie of the Year voting.

In 2021, Castro hit .193 with eight homers and 87 strikeouts in 314 plate appearances as a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitchers. When swinging as a right-handed hitter against lefties, he hit .281 with one homer and 22 strikeouts in 136 plate appearances.

Paredes starts slow

Although Castro picked up his performance after a slow start, Tigers infielder Isaac Paredes remains stuck in an early season slump for Venados de Mazatlan in the Mexican Pacific Winter League.

Paredes, 22, is 0-for-13 with five walks and zero strikeouts in five games.

Last winter, also playing for Mazatlan, Paredes won the league's batting title with a .379 average, accompanied by four home runs, 26 RBIs, 27 walks and 12 strikeouts. The Tigers surely appreciate Paredes' plate discipline, but they would like to see him hit for more power, especially to the pull side as a right-handed hitter.

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Detroit Tigers second baseman Isaac Paredes (19) crosses home plate in the third inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on March 28, 2021, at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida.
Detroit Tigers second baseman Isaac Paredes (19) crosses home plate in the third inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on March 28, 2021, at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida.

Paredes played 23 games for the Tigers in 2021, logging a .208 batting average, one homer, five RBIs, 10 walks and 11 strikeouts. He also hit .265 with 11 homers, 42 RBIs, 56 walks and 47 strikeouts in 72 games for Triple-A Toledo.

Venados de Mazatlan used Paredes as the team's designated hitter for the first three games of his offseason activities, then put him at third base for the next two games. He has made one error in 16 innings at the hot corner.

Another note: Right-handed pitcher Martin Herrera has tossed 3⅓ scoreless innings with one walk and one strikeout in three relief appearances for Tomateros de Culiacan in the Mexican Pacific Winter League. The 21-year-old pitched in the Florida Complex League in 2021.

Triple-A MVP takes on DR

Aderlin Rodriguez is no longer a prospect, but the 29-year-old is still chasing his MLB debut. He was crowned Triple-A East MVP in 2021, hitting .290 with 29 home runs, 94 RBIs, 42 walks and 127 strikeouts in 116 games for the Toledo Mud Hens.

Rodriguez has played seven games for Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League, serving as teammates with Castro, Pujols and other big leaguers. He is hitting .214 (6-for-28) with two doubles, one home run, one RBI and seven strikeouts.

He has played all seven games as the team's first baseman, making one error in 61 innings.

Pitchers in Dominican Republic

Four pitchers from the Tigers have already made their debuts in the Dominican Winter League: right-handed starter Elvin Rodriguez and right-handed relievers Drew Carlton, Gerson Moreno and Angel De Jesus.

Carlton is the only player from this list with MLB experience, but that should change in 2022. The Tigers recently added Rodriguez to the 40-man roster, keeping him from becoming a minor-league free agent. He is expected to start next season in Triple-A Toledo and could pitch for Detroit in the second half of the season.

Rodriguez, 23, has a 6.75 ERA in one start for Tigres del Licey, allowing two runs on three hits and one walk over 2⅔ innings. He recorded four strikeouts in his first outing. Carlton, meanwhile, is pitching out of the bullpen for Leones del Escogido. The 26-year-old owns a 7.71 ERA and three strikeouts — without conceding a walk — across 2⅓ innings in three games.

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Angel De Jesus, Erie SeaWolves
Angel De Jesus, Erie SeaWolves

So far, Moreno and De Jesus have been the best two pitching performers in the Dominican Republic.

Moreno, 26, commands a 1.80 ERA and zero walks and six strikeouts over five innings for Estrellas de Oriente. He has made five appearances as a reliever. He reached Triple-A Toledo in 2021 but spent most of the year (35 of his 37 games) in Double-A Erie.

De Jesus, 24, has thrown three scoreless innings with two walks and one strikeout in three relief appearances for Gigantes del Cibao. He boasted a 3.34 ERA in 44 games (three starts) for Erie and Toledo in 2021.

Of his 44 appearances, De Jesus made 35 of them for the Mud Hens.

Update from Venezuela

Carlos Mendoza has a .190 batting average (4-for-21) in seven games for Caribes de Anzoategui in the Venezuelan Winter League, recording two doubles, one stolen base, four walks and seven strikeouts. The 21-year-old has made all six of his starts in left field, but he has seen three games in right field and one game in center field.

Mendoza is coming off a strong 2021 campaign, after the Tigers signed him in March 2019: He hit .415 in 26 games in the Florida Complex League, .288 in 28 games for Low-A Lakeland and .200 in two games for Double-A Erie.

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Also playing for Caribes de Anzoategui, right-handed reliever Williander Moreno has a 2.70 ERA with zero walks and two strikeouts over 3⅓ innings in three games. The 22-year-old had a 3.16 ERA in 25 games (two starts) for Low-A Lakeland in 2021.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers winter leagues: Willi Castro, Isaac Paredes updates