One of the few sources of drama this offseason may be the future of Detroit Tigers right fielder Nicholas Castellanos. At just 26 years old, Castellanos is already an MLB veteran with five years of experience, and will be eligible free agency after the 2019 season. With no trace of ongoing talks on a long-term extension, and the Tigers offering no opportunities to play in big games in the foreseeable future, the two parties seem destined to part either this offseason or sometime in July as other teams seek help for their playoff push.
As Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press reported back on November 8, there has been at least some league-wide interest in acquiring Castellanos in the past year. With no extension forthcoming, it makes all the sense in the world for the Tigers to dangle him in trade talks.
The Houston Astros, in particular, apparently had interest in a deal at last July’s trade deadline. In recent years, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow hasn’t made a habit of losing deals, so it’s easy to imagine their pursuit being cautious, though there are no details available. On the other hand, the last trade they made with the Tigers powered them to a World Series championship, and while Castellanos isn’t Justin Verlander, he and the Astros are still quite a good fit this offseason.
Houston has some problems
Maybe the best argument for a potential deal between the Tigers and Astros is that the Astros have a major need in their lineup, and Castellanos could make a real difference to their championship hopes. Without another high quality bat, among other things, the Astros’ championship window is looking rather small at the moment.
While there is still an excellent nucleus in Houston, they are dealing with a lot of turnover in the supporting cast this winter. Starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are free agents, while the heir apparent to one of them, Lance McCullers, is set to miss the 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Utility man extraordinaire Marwin Gonzalez is a free agent, as are catcher Brian McCann and designated hitter Evan Gattis.
The Astros retain a very strong farm system, checking in at ninth in baseball (one spot behind the Tigers) on FanGraphs’ recent organizational rankings. The Astros will expect a little help on that front. They may also choose to bring back Morton and/or Gonzalez. Even so, they are going to have to make some moves to put a championship-quality roster on the field. They have every reason to be aggressive in doing so.
After the 2019 season, Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and George Springer will all be free agents. The strength of the farm system, and overall success of the front office, makes it likely that 2020 may be more of a reset year than the beginning of another rebuild. The 2019 season is prime time for the Astros, though, and they know it.
It’s pretty simple. The Astros need a bat, they want to avoid messy long-term commitments, and they have an open designated hitter spot. Castellanos would probably thrive in Houston with a mix of DH and outfield starts. As an experienced and confident hitter in his prime heading to a team packed with talented players his age, it’s not hard to imagine him fitting right in and mashing in that lineup. At home, the Astros could perhaps play him in front of the Crawford Boxes in left field, and minimize the impact of his below average range when they wanted someone else in the DH slot. He would probably take advantage of the short left field at the plate as well. Heading into his age-27 season and coming off a year in which he posted a .363 weighted on base average (wOBA), despite just 23 home runs, Castellanos would seem primed for a power surge, and a big year in an Astros uniform.
Start the bidding
To get a general idea of Castellanos’ trade value, let’s use FanGraphs’ prospect valuations (check out that link if you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of their values). Castellanos is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make $11.3 million in arbitration this year. He was essentially a three-win player in 2018, and his overall value would have been even a little better taking the positional adjustment for a designated hitter rather than actually playing right field. In this type of valuation, based on a base estimate of 1 WAR per $9 million, Castellanos was worth about $27 million in 2018. Subtract his projected salary, and that leaves roughly $16 million in surplus value on the table.
According to FanGraphs’ prospect value evaluations, Castellanos is worth the current value they project for Tigers prospect Franklin Perez, at $14 million. For context, Matt Manning is valued at $15 million, while outfielder Christin Stewart is valued at $13 million. The Astros’ prospect closest in value is Cuban power-lefty Cionel Perez, checking in at an estimated value of $17 million.
The Tigers’ would presumably take Perez with gusto, along with the $11.3 million in savings, which they would hopefully then invest in free agency to look for another marketable asset. The Astros would presumably demur from giving up Perez straight up in a deal. However, the kicker may be that Castellanos would likely decline a qualifying offer from the Tigers after the 2019 season, and thus would potentially be worth a compensation round pick as well. There’s some value there the Tigers could use to push back in asking for the return they want.
This is just an example, but there are plenty of other Astros prospects who could make up a quality return for Castellanos as well. The Tigers could also offer another player — Shane Greene comes to mind — to sweeten the deal.
Even if Perez and other borderline top 100 prospects are just out of reach, it’s still worthwhile for the Tigers to explore deals for Castellanos if they are creative. They can hunt for talent at the rookie and A-ball levels that hasn’t quite blossomed yet. Multiple raw but talented teenagers might be better than settling for one or two older, more established prospects with less upside. The Tigers successfully pulled this off in the acquisition of then 18-year-old Isaac Paredes as part of the Justin Wilson trade with the Chicago Cubs in 2017.
While the Tigers won’t find a blue-chip prospect on the table, acquiring another quality piece or two for the system and freeing up some payroll could convince them to avoid getting stuck in a similar situation to the one they faced with J.D. Martinez in 2017. However, they should also be willing to contribute a decent chunk of Castellanos’ proposed 2019 salary as well , especially if it helps them acquire a better class of prospect in return. Hopefully they can find a few interested teams and leverage a solid return this winter.