Stop us if you’ve heard this before: a Scott Boras client is the last high-profile name left in free agency. At this point it’s practically a time-honored tradition for the Boras Corporation to have the last big name standing in free agency. It doesn’t always work in the player’s favor, but even many of those who’ve settled for lesser deals — think Mike Moustakas, Dallas Keuchel and, a few years back, Kendrys Morales — have eventually gone on to cash in on sizable multi-year pacts in future offseasons.
Enter Nicholas Castellanos. Heading into free agency, he was a hotly discussed name due to his youth — he’ll turn 28 in March — and the Ruthian finish he had to the 2019 season. Upon being traded to the Cubs, Castellanos erupted with a .321/.356/.646 slash, 16 homers and 21 doubles in just 51 games (225 plate appearances). He connected on an extra-base hit (16.4 percent) nearly as often as he struck out (20.8 percent). Reactionary takes suggesting that he’d punched his ticket to a nine-figure payday never seemed particularly grounded in reality, but a hefty multi-year deal certainly looked (and arguably still looks) likely.
The longstanding question with Castellanos has been his glovework. Were he even an average defender, even in a corner spot, the $100MM+ some speculated following his Cubs bonanza might’ve been conceivable. But Castellanos came up as a third baseman, moved to right field due to defensive deficiencies and has yet to master his new position. He’s improved, in the eyes of most metrics, going from -19 DRS in 2018 to -9 in 2019, -12.9 UZR to -4.4 and -24 OAA to -7. It’s a step in the right direction, but the consensus remains that he’s a questionable defender.
If he’s able to make similar strides in 2020, that perception might change, and it’s worth noting that Castellanos’ problem lies more in poor jumps than his speed, which is above-average, per Statcast. However, Castellanos and Boras are looking for long-term commitments right now, and signing a shorter-term deal would run the risk of his glovework backing up (or of incurring an injury, declining at the plate, etc.). Betting on himself could prove particularly lucrative, given his age, but that’s not a risk that most players would prefer to take — or feel they should have to take coming off a run at the plate as productive as that of Castellanos.
Over the past four seasons, Castellanos is a .286/.336/.504 hitter (120 OPS+, 121 wRC+), and he’s been even better over the past two campaigns (124 OPS+, 126 wRC+). Castellanos isn’t an especially prodigious home run hitter, but his 104 doubles over the past two seasons are seven more than the next-highest mark in the game. Castellanos has still gone deep 50 times in that stretch — including that 16-homer surge in Chicago. (It’s worth pointing out that he’s been a more productive hitter at Detroit’s Comerica Park than on the road, so the ballpark switch probably wasn’t the primary factor.) He might not be in former teammate J.D. Martinez’s territory as far as overall offensive output goes, but Castellanos has been one of baseball’s 30 best hitters since 2018.
Perhaps a sign of the times, Castellanos is looking for a long-term deal in the same offseason that his primary market competitor, Marcell Ozuna, took a one-year deal with the Braves. It’s become tougher and tougher for corner bats to land sizable contracts in recent years — particularly if they’re not considered standout defenders. Ozuna landing in Atlanta removed one potential landing spot for Castellanos, and another dried up earlier this winter when the White Sox filled up their lineup by adding both Nomar Mazara and Edwin Encarnacion.
So where can Castellanos look to find work? Let’s run through some of the best remaining fits…
- Rangers: Texas could call its outfield full, citing a left-to-right trio of Willie Calhoun, Danny Santana and Joey Gallo. But Gallo surprisingly proved capable of handling center in 2019, and Santana has traditionally struggled there anyhow. The Rangers could shift Santana to a bench role and play Gallo in center to accommodate Castellanos in right. Alternatively, they’ve reportedly discussed signing Castellanos to play first base (an indictment on his defense in and of itself). President of baseball ops Jon Daniels is clearly in win-now mode as the Rangers move into a new ballpark, and adding Castellanos would cap off an aggressive winter in fashion.
- Indians: Cleveland has shredded its payroll to the point that they’re now projected to have a sub-$100MM payroll and their lowest mark since 2015. They could be looking at their final year with Francisco Lindor in the mix, as owner Paul Dolan has previously signaled that he’s not willing to spend at the level it’d take to lock the superstar shortstop up long-term. The Indians only have $23MM on the books in 2021, and their current corner outfielders will consist of a combination of Jake Bauers, Greg Allen, Delino DeShields Jr., Jordan Luplow, Tyler Naquin, Franmil Reyes (who’ll spend time at DH as well) and Bradley Zimmer. Adding Castellanos would put a better spin on an offseason in which the club parted with Corey Kluber and added Cesar Hernandez and Emmanuel Clase. Then again, Cleveland was also mostly idle last winter even as the Twins made some aggressive moves, and now both Minnesota and the White Sox have significantly ramped up their efforts to win.
- Reds: No one will accuse the Reds of idleness over the past year and a half. They don’t have a clear outfield opening, with newly signed Shogo Akiyama joining Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker and Aristides Aquino in the outfield mix (and several other options on the 40-man roster, including Phil Ervin, Travis Jankowski, Scott Schebler and Jose Siri). But while Aquino exploded with 14 homers in his first 29 MLB games, he followed that up with a catastrophic .196/.236/.382 slash in his second month in the big leagues. He could be optioned to Triple-A, but even then, adding Castellanos wouldn’t leave much room for Winker and his career .285/.379/.466 batting line in the Majors. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweeted this week that the Reds are “still a player” for Castellanos, adding that they made a “spirited” pursuit of Ozuna. But it’s not clear when in the offseason they made their peak offer to Ozuna, and at this point it seems likely that Cincinnati would need to make a trade to accommodate Castellanos. Perhaps that’s just what the organization has in mind if it is able to reach agreement.
- Cardinals: The Cardinals, admittedly, are more of an on-paper fit than anything else. Owner Bill DeWitt Jr. publicly indicated recently that an additional splash or further increase in the team’s payroll isn’t likely. Still, the Cards lost Ozuna and now look like they’ll rely on Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas in left. It’s possible that one or both (or top prospect Dylan Carlson, who also looms in the upper minors) could emerge as a quality big league contributor, but the currently constructed version of the Cardinals’ lineup will carry its share of questions entering the season. For a club intent on defending a division title, that’s not ideal.
- Cubs: The Cubs are said to have loved Castellanos in his short time there — how could you not love that type of production? — but ownership has been steadfast in its reluctance to add to the MLB payroll this winter. The Cubs, stunningly, haven’t signed a single free agent to a guaranteed big league salary. They’re awaiting the resolution of Kris Bryant’s service time grievance, and many expect them to shop the former MVP once that happens. Perhaps they’ll just happily take the extra payroll space if they’re able to find a deal, but the temptation to sign Castellanos to a backloaded contract would be strong; the Cubs will have Jon Lester, Tyler Chatwood, Jose Quintana and Daniel Descalso all off the books next year. Perhaps Castellanos will already have signed by that point, but if he’s still out there and the Cubs find a way to shed some payroll, a reunion becomes more likely.
- Giants: San Francisco was reported to be interested in Castellanos earlier this winter, and there isn’t exactly anyone standing in the way of Castellanos. Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson project as the primary corner outfielders, but both are more than a year older than Castellanos despite their lack of MLB experience. The only year that Yastrzemski has shown any type of sustained power was in 2019’s juiced ball environment, and Dickerson has totaled all of 101 games between the Majors and Triple-A over the past three seasons. The Giants are rebuilding, but Castellanos wouldn’t cost a draft pick, block significant prospects, or put them near the luxury threshold. At the very least, if he winds up settling on a one-year deal, the Giants could do worse than trying to flip him in July or collecting a pick by issuing a QO at season’s end. However, a multi-year deal for a player still in his prime is sensible so long as the team isn’t in all-out tank mode (which doesn’t seem to be the case based on other offseason moves).