While his team struggles to the end of a bitter 2017 campaign, Nicholas Castellanos has been making a lot of noise lately. The Detroit Tigers’ new right fielder last went hitless in a game on September 2. That game is his only 0-fer since August 28. He has a new position, a lengthy hitting streak, and a second chance to turn himself into a productive everyday major league player. The Tigers may yet have a second chance of their own: to sign Castellanos to a long-term contract.
An extension to a player who hasn’t reached free agency would be a radical move for the Tigers. The last true extension they agreed to before a player hit free agency was Justin Verlander prior to the 2009 season. Rick Porcello didn’t get one. Neither did J.D. Martinez. These were missed opportunities for a team with little thought for tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the Tigers were busily spending truckloads of money in free agency. Willingly paying young players more in the short-term to add years of control wasn’t in the playbook. Of course, the Tigers haven’t exactly been a hotbed of young talent over the past decade either. Castellanos is a unique case in which both his youth, his service time, and his lack of a positional home make for a rare opportunity.
Right now, Castellanos is a player without a position. He has proven himself a productive hitter over the past two seasons. He isn’t yet a standout threat in a major league lineup, but the man can hit. If he were hitting free agency now, would any team be offering him a big contract? No one is offering six years and $90 million, for example, to a guy who may not be able to play the field anywhere with regularity.
That uncertainty leaves a window that a sharp general manager could exploit. You are not going to get the kind of value that teams like the Chicago White Sox or the Tampa Bay Rays are known for in extending players early in their careers. Castellanos is already a couple years past those type of deals. Yet there’s still enough meat on the bone to make it worth paying now for a substantial extension.
There are still signs that Castellanos isn’t done improving. He continues to hold one of the best line drive percentages in the game. Only Joey Votto has a lower infield fly ball rate over the last two calendar years. This, coupled with rising power numbers the past two seasons, hint of more to come for the 25-year-old Castellanos. In a time in which 185 pound shortstops routinely crank 30 homers per season, it’s not unreasonable to think that he could be cracking at least that many in the years to come.
Castellanos has managed to trim his strikeout rate substantially in 2017, down to just 21.6 percent. If he can maintain that rate, the odds only increase that his production over the past two seasons is sustainable, and possibly the beginning of bigger things.
Castellanos hasn’t boosted his mediocre walk rate in four seasons, but burgeoning power may help him there in the years to come. Should he become a consistent 30 home run hitter in the coming years, you will likely see a modest increase in the walk rate as well. Pitchers will be a little more cautious with a hitter who is probably the second most dangerous bat — assuming a return to form for Miguel Cabrera — on the Tigers’ roster. And Castellanos will be older and more experienced.
That is what you’re betting on: more power and a few more walks. Combine that with a modicum of success in right field, and you have yourself a good player for many years to come. But the Tigers have to predict it now, and pay for it. The fact that Castellanos has established at solid floor for himself at only age 25 makes that risk worth taking.
As things stand, Castellanos must know he isn’t a guy who is going to pull $15 million a year or more on a long term deal two years from now. But he also isn’t going to be low-balled into a short-term deal either, presumably. How badly does he want to bet on himself two years from now as opposed to seeing his current earnings skyrocket immediately?
He received $3 million this season in his first year of arbitration. Something like $6 million next year, and perhaps $10 million in 2018, seems a reasonable estimate on his current pace. Would he give up three years of whatever extra he might make in free agency to make eight figures starting next season? There are reasons to think an extension is still possible, and for the Tigers, necessary.
Considering the Tigers drastically reduced payroll heading into 2018, you could perhaps even front-load such a deal to create more wiggle room three or four years down the road, when the rebuild is hopefully coming to fruition. Offering him, say, five years and $60 million may seem a touch excessive, but the Tigers have already missed the boat on getting him cheap. He will presumably make something like $15-16 million combined in his final two arbitration years. The Tigers won’t get him at the kind of low rates they could have locked him up for a year or two ago. But it doesn’t matter. They need those years of control.
The issue is not necessarily to retain Castellanos for the long term. Maybe he’s the anchor of a rebuilt Tigers’ lineup three or four years from now. Maybe he’s gone before then. The point is to ensure that he is a Tiger when he has his best seasons, and not a member of some other organization. The decision to keep or trade him at his point of highest value would then lie in the Tigers’ hands, with no J.D. Martinez scenario looming in which they are forced to take what they can get for a player in his walk year.
The Tigers have entered into new days. And it’s high time they start thinking in new ways. The truth of the matter is that it may be too late to make this happen. But if general manager Al Avila is the man to rebuild the Tigers, he should together a substantial offer to Mr. Castellanos. When they sit down to talk salary this offseason, Avila needs to be ready to do a lot more than work out a modest raise.