Despite the somewhat stalemated relationship between right fielder Nicholas Castellanos and the Detroit Tigers, the topic just won’t go away. The organization is tasked with squeezing the most long-term value from a player whose limited skill set makes him a difficult fit for many teams. As he prepares for his final season before free agency, the one option they seem to have crossed off their list is to retain Castellanos by offering him an extension.
On Sunday, Chris McCosky of The Detroit News reported that Castellanos had re-iterated his openness to discussing a new contract. Yet his comments also indicate that the Tigers’ front office isn’t pursuing the idea.
“I think both sides know a conversation would be welcome,” Castellanos said. “That’s where it’s at now. That’s it. There’s been no talking.”
So it goes. Just over two weeks remain until Opening Day, and things don’t seem likely to change. The Tigers will triple down on the hope that Castellanos can be dealt sometime in July for a better return in minor league talent than they have been offered thus far. History suggests that is very unlikely to happen.
The Tigers have been open to dealing the 27-year-old Castellanos since the team began its teardown in July 2017. And while he has struggled to find a positional home, he has also continued to rake in the batter’s box. Coming off a 2018 season where he posted a 130 wRC+, the 26th best mark in baseball and a career-best mark for him, it’s hard to see how he can make himself more valuable in July than he is right now.
The Tigers already went through this scenario with J.D. Martinez in 2017. While they have many similarities as bat-only players with limited ability in the field, Castellanos lacks the bone-crushing power that Martinez brings to the plate. There was a surprising — and probably foolish in some cases — lack of suitors for Martinez, and the Tigers were only able to get back three fringe prospects from the Arizona Diamondbacks who weren’t well regarded by most outlets. They’ve done little to alter that perception since their acquisition. Should multiple contenders need a shot of offense at the trade deadline, perhaps the Tigers could do better than they did with Martinez. But it’s certainly a longshot.
The qualifying offer is an impediment
Valuing Castellanos properly is further complicated by the question of whether or not the Tigers could potentially make a qualifying offer and recoup a high draft pick. That is a valuable commodity, particularly for a team desperately trying to prime its prospect pipeline. This past offseason, the qualifying offer mark was set at $17.9 million for one season. Assume that amount goes up a little bit for players reaching free agency after this season. If the Tigers made that offer after this season, and Castellanos declined it and then signed a free agent deal worth at least $50 million, the Tigers would receive a compensation round pick. Presumably, that pick would come between the first and second round of the draft. The Tigers would like that outcome.
Unfortunately, collecting that pick has become something of a pipe dream. There is a very good possibility that Castellanos would simply accept the qualifying offer of $18 million or so. He is set to earn $9.95 million for the 2019 season, so taking the qualifying offer and nearly doubling his current salary is a no-brainer. He would still come right back to free agency after the 2020 season. Even if he declined the qualifying offer, there’s no guarantee another team would be willing to offer him a $50 million contract in free agency, and in the process surrender a high round draft pick of their own. Simply getting Castellanos to decline the qualifying offer could actually produce the unintended consequence of tanking his value in free agency.
We saw an example of how the attachment of a qualifying offer can devalue a player when former Kansas City Royals third baseman, Mike Moustakas, reached free agency following the 2017 season. Moustakas hit 38 home runs in 2017, posting a 114 wRC+ while playing better defense at third base than Castellanos has ever managed. Yet once Moustakas declined the Royals qualifying offer, he found that no one else wanted to pay full price for him because they would also surrender a high draft pick to do it. Instead, he ended up signing a one-year deal for a third of what he would have received by simply accepting the qualifying offer in the first place.
Another example came just a few months ago, when catcher Yasmani Grandal declined a qualifying offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 2018 season, only to find himself in the same scenario Moustakas dealt with the year prior. Grandal also ended up taking a one-year deal, despite being arguably the best free agent catcher to hit the market in several years. In both cases, the teams, not just the players, found themselves out of their reckoning under current market conditions.
The Tigers and Castellanos make sense for each other
In the end, the best way to cut through the fog is probably to lock Castellanos up for four or five years. The Tigers need him, or a similar bat, for the long-term. Miguel Cabrera is no longer a dependable force in the lineup. In planning for the future, the Tigers have to know that the big man’s likely impact is going to be felt in the team payroll much more so than on the field. The team has some solid young position players, and several good position player prospects coming up through the farm system, but there isn’t a dominant bat in the bunch, other than maybe Christin Stewart. For this reason, we have made the case for a Castellanos extension repeatedly over the past two seasons.
Yes, the Tigers may need assurances from Castellanos that he would be willing to try first base, and an openness to slotting in as the right fielder, first baseman, or designated hitter as the team requires. But allowing a good hitter who wants to stay in Detroit to walk away wouldn’t be smart at this point.
While retaining Castellanos’ services should be a priority, it also has to be said that there’s nothing wrong with the Tigers simply waiting this out. In fact, that may be the best thing they can do. If they remain interested in keeping him around long-term, the front office can drive a harder bargain at the trade deadline, without fear of coming away with nothing. And whether they trade him, or keep him until the season ends, they can always revisit the topic once Castellanos actually becomes a free agent at season’s end.
Outfielder A.J. Pollock received a four-year, $55 million deal from the Los Angeles Dodgers this offseason, and that deal makes a decent starting point in estimating a deal for Castellanos. Pollock is a better defender and base runner, but isn’t quite as good a hitter. He’s also 31 years old, and has only played a single full season in a career that has been ravaged by injuries.
With free agency so close, Castellanos doesn’t have a lot of reason to give the Tigers a major break on his price, but a deal of four or five years, at say, $12 million per season, continues to look like a reasonable guidepost to a deal between the two parties. Such a deal would give Castellanos a slight raise, while allowing him to re-enter free agency in his early 30s, and after the next round of collective bargaining takes place in 2021. It would also extend the Tigers’ control over him through his prime years and retain a middle-of-the-order bat they can’t afford to lose as their top prospects near their major league debuts.