Nick Castellanos's Free Agency Price Tag is Extremely Difficult to Project, and Might Be Lower Than You'd Expect

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Nick Castellanos’s Free Agency Price Tag is Extremely Difficult to Project, and Might Be Lower Than You’d Expect

Chicago Cubs

For as much as I love to shout “EXTENNDDDDD HIMMMMMMM!!!” every time Nick Castellanos does something good – a frequent occurrence since his midseason trade to the Cubs – I know that it was never actually going to happen.

When a dude is 27, is in the middle of a potentially transformative year, is uncoupled from draft pick compensation, and has Scott Boras as his agent, he is simply not going to sign an extension with his brand new team unless it’s for an obscene amount of money. And the Cubs? They aren’t going to ink a corner outfielder to an obscene amount of money right now, given how much could be changing in their organization very soon.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t look at re-signing Castellanos this offseason, or that Castellanos won’t have interest in sticking around with a good team where he clearly felt very comfortable. There is pretty clearly a potential fit between these two sides going forward, so I think it’s probably about time we set down a baseline for financial expectations. It makes tracking the rumors, particularly as they relate to the overall payroll and other possible Cubs moves, a lot more coherent going forward.

That is all to say: how much is Castellanos gonna cost, anyway?

It’s not easy for anyone to figure out, because Castellanos comes with such a weirdly mixed profile. On the one hand, at just 27, he’s on the young side for free agency, and a team signing him is going to get his age 28, 29, and 30 seasons at the start of his contract before you might start projecting the meat of his decline years to kick in.

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

On the other hand, he’s a bat-first corner outfielder working on two good (but not elite) offensive seasons, following two solid (but not quite good) seasons. His time with the Cubs has been obscene (.335/.370/.675, 164 wRC+), but it comes with a BABIP (.366) and ISO (.340) that dwarf his career marks, despite hard contact and fly ball rates that are mostly in line with his previous marks. The Castellanos we’ve seen with the Cubs is probably not Castellanos going forward in the results department.

On the other hand, he’s always been a high BABIP guy with improving power. While it wouldn’t be reasonable to project the small-sample Castellanos going forward, I don’t see why it’s not reasonable to project the guy he’s been overall the last two years: .296/.348/.516, 127 wRC+. He doesn’t walk (6.8% over that time), but he also does put the ball in play at a league-average rate (22.0% K rate) despite all that hard contact. That’s not a bad fit for a Cubs lineup that should be looking to increase its balls in play without sacrificing power (and Castellanos’s clearly plays well at Wrigley Field).

That’s a good corner outfield bat right there. Consider that the league average right fielder hit just .262/.334/.459 this year with a 106 wRC+. Left field has been even worse, at .256/.328/.449 with a 102 wRC+. Castellanos can hit, and hit a lot.

But what about the glove? That’s more or less going to dictate his market. The optimistic case is that Castellanos is a good athlete, and he is only in year two of his transition to the outfield after years at third base. The pessimistic case is that he was a brutal defender at third base, a brutal defender in right field last year, and is only slightly less brutal this year. Has it shown up in our small sample eye test? Not really. To me, anyway. But over a nearly two-year sample in right field, the data are bad: UZR/150 of -12.3 in 2018, -5.2 this year; -19 DRS last year, -10 DRS this year.

Worse, if you put Castellanos in right field with Jason Heyward in center field (where he is around average, or maybe just slightly better)? And Kyle Schwarber, for example, in left? Over a full season, that defense is going to let up some serious runs. Maybe you take it for the bats, but I’m just saying – that’s a rough outfield unless there is dramatic defensive improvement from Schwarber and Castellanos. Not impossible given their ages and semi-recent moves to full-time outfielder duties, but still. It’s a risk.

And other teams considering Castellanos will be doing the same calculations, which will absolutely hurt his market.

You also have to consider his projections going forward, and, for example, ZiPS sees a league-average overall player for the next few years:

Harsh? Overly pessimistic based on the years before 2018? Perhaps, but you can’t act like that risk isn’t there simply because all we’ve seen is a guy destroying the baseball for under two months.

Absent context, it might seem crazy to see Dan Szymborski mention two years and $31 million, or three years and $45 million, or even three years and $60 million at the highest end, but keep in mind, bat-first corner outfielders with big questions about their defense don’t always bring in big bucks in free agency, especially in the current era of extreme emphasis on shorter-term commitments.

Moreover, the recent comps out there aren’t really going to help Castellanos much, if he can even use them at all. Consider some recent outfield free agent deals:

  • A.J. Pollock – four years, $50 million. To be sure, Pollock was heading into his age 30 season and had an extensive injury history, but he also had some huge WAR years in his past (Castellanos does not), and could play quality outfield defense, including center field.
  • Andrew McCutchen – three years, $50 million. Although McCutchen had obviously declined since his MVP days and was heading into his age 32 season, he also had a long track record of offensive success, was coming off back-to-back 120ish wRC+ seasons, and wound up playing average to slightly above average defense in right field the year before free agency.
  • Jay Bruce – three years, $39 million. Bruce signed his deal at age 30, heading into his age 31 season. He was coming off a big bounce back at the plate and in the field, where he rated as merely “below average,” rather than “terrible.” Together, it made for a 2.6 WAR platform season, despite several down years that preceded it. The comparison is imperfect, but in my mind, Castellanos should absolutely, unequivocally do better than Bruce. He’s much younger, better at the plate, and probably slightly better in the field, too. So if you’re using comps, consider three years and $39 million the floor on a Castellanos deal (and I’m talking FLOOR … he’s gonna do better than that).
  • Dexter Fowler – five years, $82.5 million. Heading into his age 31 season, Fowler got a really significant deal from the Cardinals on the strength of his improvement in center field with the Cubs, and his consistent offensive production. Fowler’s walk year featured a whopping 4.6 WAR, 50% higher than what Castellanos put up in 2018 or 2019. The ability to play center field definitely boosted Fowler’s value, too. Age works in Castellanos’s favor again, but his best offensive years are there with Fowler’s … minus the ability to play average outfield defense at all three spots. (I could have included Lorenzo Cain, too, but his defensive ability makes the comp even more impossible than Fowler.)
  • Yoenis Cespedes – four years, $110 million. Another age 31 season signing, Cespedes was coming off back-to-back huge offensive years (135 and 136 wRC+), while playing average to above-average defense all over the outfield. Cespedes had a more impactful stick and a much better defensive track record, so this is another tough comp. (I could have included J.D. Martinez, too, but the extreme heights of his offensive breakout before free agency just took him so far out of reach that it muddies the waters too much, in my opinion.)

Ultimately, you can see where I’m going with this. It’s really hard to find the right comparison for Castellanos in recent years, mostly because of his age. You’re going to see his agent, Scott Boras, hammering Castellanos’s youth this offseason, and understandably so. It’s the key separator for his client against a backdrop of recent outfield signings that would otherwise suggest he should probably be looking at something in the three to four-year, $45 to $55 million range.

That is absolutely not going to be his asking price coming out of the gate. Seems like there’s going to be an argument for five years and close to $100 million if his camp wants to get really aggressive. Not sure they’ll get it, but I could see the ask. Perhaps he ultimately winds up somewhere between those low-end, high-end figures.

We’ll track Castellanos’s free agency closely in the coming months, and I think it’ll be interesting to see how aggressively the Cubs pursue Castellanos. He’s a fantastic fit for the lineup – a slightly different type of hitter, given the league-average contact skills (both in strikeout rate and contact rate) – and maybe he can be passable in right field. He also has an undeniable energy about him that seems to be the kind of positive spark you just want on your team.

Consider me fully in the “see if you can make it work” camp right now. But with a lot of churn expected elsewhere on the roster, it’s possible things change rapidly in the early going that make his fit less obvious.

Early, tentative expectation? The Cubs talk about their interest, stay in touch throughout the process, but maybe wait to see if Castellanos is still on the market come late-December, and on into January.

(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)


Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.