Late in the season, against the backdrop of everyone (me included) wanting the Cubs to EXTEND NICK CASTELLANOS, I took a chance to dig into his pending free agency in a more serious way. It’s easy to shout about an extension when you’re in the lusty throes of his hitting binge with the Cubs, but it’s a little more difficult to pin down just what a rational team should pay for his services going forward.
You can see here the challenges I had in coming up with appropriate free agent comps for a guy with Castellanos’ offensive ceiling and floor (both relatively high), very young age at free agency (28 next season), and transition to a new defensive position (at which he might be terrible or might be totally passable).
Turns out I’m not alone in this exercise, as Mark Feinsand looked at the six most “divisive” free agents, and right there at the top (OK, it was alphabetical, but he’d still be up there!) is none other than Nick Castellanos, whose defensive limitations took center stage:
Nobody buoyed their free-agent value during the final two months the way Castellanos did, posting a 1.002 OPS with 16 home runs in 51 games after being acquired by the Cubs. [But, as] impressive as Castellanos was during his two-month stint with the Cubs, the first four months of his season with the Tigers were nothing short of disastrous. He posted a .790 OPS with 11 home runs in 100 games, and lest we forget, his defensive reputation is less than stellar.
Castellanos’ defense actually improved slightly in 2019, and the fact that the Cubs were willing to run him out there on a nightly basis down the stretch could help change the perception that he’s a defensive liability.
“For Theo [Epstein] and that front office to use this guy during a playoff run and have it be OK might make some GMs feel comfortable taking a shot on him,” an National League executive said. “They could think, ‘Hey, the Cubs did it.’”
Still, it’s far more likely that he winds up with an AL team, reducing the number of interested clubs — “This could be one with a high risk of the player having to wait deep into the winter,” an AL executive said. “Think of J.D. Martinez as a good comp for how his free agency could go [in terms of the long wait].”
Optimistic view: “I think he helped himself a lot in the second half,” an NL executive said. “He can really hit; if I was an AL club with a DH spot, I would have pretty heavy interest. I don’t know that he is J.D. Martinez, but you can draw some parallels to their stories. And he’s ahead of where Martinez was at his age.”
Pessimistic view: “The challenge for him will be teams that slant toward defense,” an NL talent evaluator said. “He’s viewed more as a DH long term than as a capable defender, which could limit his market.”
Taken all together, this is just setting up for one of those weird free agencies where the difference between the player’s ask and the teams’ offers is cavernous.
It’s not hard to see how the market will treat Castellanos if he’s seeking a five+ year contract for $100+ million: “yes you’re young, and yes you’ve had some success at the plate, but it’s not consistent success, and you can’t play defense.” Unfair, given his steep success at the plate with the Cubs and his improving defense after he had more time to settle post-transition to the outfield? Yeah, I think it’s a little harsh. But the market is gonna be the market.
To that end, even in MLBTR’s discussion of Castellanos, he’s regarded almost exclusively as a DH candidate. To the extent there are interested NL teams that are willing to play him in the outfield, the fact that most AL teams would want him primarily to DH is going to drive down his market.
Consider that, on the year, American League DH’s hit .252/.339/.467 with a 111 wRC+. Castellanos’ overall season line was a little better (.289/.337/.525, 121 wRC+) but his career slash is right there with the average DH line: .277/.326/.471, 112 wRC+. If half the market doesn’t think he can be a passable defender, then how much are they going to be willing to pay for a guy who might instead just be a slightly-better-than-average DH? Given that many DH spots are filled with rotational pieces and pre-arb guys, the answer is … not much.
Still, the counterargument is not hard to make: Castellanos has been improving at the plate, and looked stellar when with an actually-competitive club in a ballpark more suited to his gap power. Moreover, he looked passable in right field, with athleticism that probably could keep him there for several more years without a lot of sting.
That said, I don’t see, realistically, how Castellanos could market himself as a $100 million guy, even without the qualifying offer attachment. At best, he might be able to top the three-to-four-year, $45 to $55 million range that his comps otherwise would suggest is reasonable.
Will that make sense for the Cubs, specifically? That’s hard to say without knowing what else they’re going to do on the roster, but I got into that much more in the earlier discussion if you missed it and want to check it out.