ST. LOUIS — Of all the big games Cubs outfielder Nicholas Castellanos has had at Wrigley Field, one stands out above the rest.
The first one.
No, not in early August after the Cubs acquired him from the Tigers at the trade deadline.
No, not in 2015 when Castellanos and his Detroit teammates took on the Cubs in interleague play.
This was in 2009, when Castellanos was all of 17 years old. It was the Under Armour All-America Baseball Game, and Castellanos — who months later would win a state title as a high school senior in Florida — went to town. The best part of his stat line? Four doubles. Some things never change.
Except, well, sometimes they do.
Castellanos the high school star played a lot like Castellanos the Cub: full of energy, bubbling over with passion, his heart usually right there on his sleeve. He was the kid Joe Maddon someday would pay an unforgettable compliment: “He’s reminding us what hunger looks like.”
But something happened in between that took the wind out of Castellanos’ sails. It can best be described in two words, the first being “Detroit” and the second “Tigers.” The teams he played on in Detroit were, generally speaking, so monumentally terrible, Castellanos believes he somewhat lost himself as a player.
“It’s 7-0 in the fourth inning, it’s the first week of May, and we’re completely out of it already,” he said. “That feeling, man, it’s not good. You know what I’m saying? It changes you.”
Two months with the Cubs changed him back. Castellanos is sure of it. Changed him back and even made him a better baseball player across the board.
And now? Now, he finds out if the Cubs love him enough to keep him.
It’s probably a long shot. Castellanos, who will turn 28 in March, is expected to be one of the top prizes of the upcoming free-agent class. He and agent Scott Boras will be looking for the kind of years and money that might make the Cubs front office take their bat and glove and go home before the game even starts.
If it were up to Cubs fans, though, Castellanos would be the everyday right fielder in 2020 and beyond. Why not put a statue of him out on Sheffield Ave., too? Of course the fans adore a guy who, in 51 games with the team, hit .321 with 16 homers, 21 doubles, a 1.002 OPS and enough wattage in his veins to light up the ballpark on a summer night.
Would Castellanos prefer to remain a Cub?
“What do you think?” he said.
But what he wants most of all can’t be expressed with a name on the front of a jersey.
“Wherever I end up, it’s going to be a with a team that really wants me,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 thing that I want just as a baseball player, is to want to be wanted, to want to feel loved and appreciated. And the more that somebody believes in me, the harder I’m going to go for that person — to show them that they made the [bleeping] right decision.”
Boras’ spin is that Castellanos would be a good fit on any team.
“I would say he’s in position to be optimally observed because he fits, really, the m.o. of any team — whether you’re a rebuilding club, because of his age, whether you’re a club that’s close to winning and wants to win, or whether you’re a club that is an existing top-eight club that’s going to compete for the World Series,” Boras said. “He’s one of those guys that fits all clubs.”
But Castellanos’ assessment is different. Rebuild again? Not a chance. Not after experiencing the thrill of a postseason chase — albeit an ill-fated one — with the Cubs. Not after improving, he believes, as an outfielder thanks to Jason Heyward’s influence and the downsizing of the expansive Comerica Park outfield to the one at Wrigley.
And definitely not after going from nobody cares to every-dang-body does.
“By being in that environment, I was able to bring out the best version of myself,” he said. “And now, the most exciting thing of all to me is thinking about being able to bring all that over a full season to a team that believes it needs me in order to win.”
If it’s the Cubs?
“Incredible,” he said.
The maniacs in the right field bleachers would be delighted.
“I love the fans,” he said. “Being able to walk to and from the park, just seeing how much they genuinely love the Cubs … it’s awesome,” he said. “It’s great, it’s pure and it was a lot of fun to be part of that.”
The fans love him back, but do the Cubs? He waits to find out.
“I look forward to what the future holds, wherever that may be,” Castellanos said. “But I know this: I’ll always be thankful for this time in Chicago.”