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Nicholas Castellanos is the best remaining free agent, and yes, the Tigers should sign him

A slow market may let the Tigers show Castellanos and fans that they are serious about rebuilding.

Detroit Tigers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Recent comments by Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila indicate that the club would like to sign an outfielder before the 2020 season begins. Avila also threw cold water on the possibility that the team could sign Yasiel Puig, saying that he was “not a priority.”

And yet, there are really only two outfielders remaining on the free agent market who could be considered difference makers. One is Puig, and the other is former Tiger Nicholas Castellanos, who was their best hitter before being traded in 2019 and the best free agent hitter still available.

Given how quickly the market progressed for other top free agents this offseason, it’s a bit surprising Castellanos remains unsigned. However, that slow market may work in the Tigers’ favor.

Where is the market for Castellanos?

The Cincinnati Reds and the San Francisco Giants have shown interest in Castellanos, with the Reds emerging as “frontrunners,” according to MLB Network’s Jon Morosi. The Atlanta Braves were also interested before they signed Marcell Ozuna earlier this week. The Texas Rangers were most recently said to have the strongest interest, but seem to be out now, with general manager Jon Daniels indicating that any further acquisitions would be made by trade.

The Chicago Cubs were believed to be interested in extending Castellanos after he hit the cover off the ball last summer, but they are not prepared to spend the money necessary until they clear some payroll space, perhaps by trading Kris Bryant (for some reason). MLB Trade Rumors projected that Castellanos would sign with the Chicago White Sox earlier this winter, but they seem to be done shopping after a busy winter.

Earlier this week, outfielder Marcell Ozuna settled for a one-year contract with the Braves. Some have speculated that Castellanos may be forced to go the same route and forego a multi-year deal, at least for now. The hot market for Castellanos has not developed.

Could the Tigers step in?

Since the Tigers want and desperately need help in the outfield and in their lineup, Castellanos gives them more than any other player available. Brandon broke down the outfield free agent market on Friday, and Castellanos is clearly the cream of the remaining crop. He led that group in just about every major statistical category, and easily produced the most WAR over the past two seasons.

While his defense in right field has been poor, Castellanos showed significant improvement in defensive metrics in 2019, going from -19 to -9 defensive runs saved (DRS) and from -12.3 to -5.2 UZR. His bat more than makes up for any defensive deficiencies as he continues to improve in the outfield. He hit an impressive .289/.357/.525 with 27 homers for the Tigers and Cubs last year.

How much could he get?

MLB Trade Rumors projected that Castellanos would receive a four-year contract worth $58 million this winter, just under $15 million per season. He may not get that much in the current market, but the Tigers should offer him a contract along those lines. If Castellanos and agent Scott Boras are holding out for the best contract and not getting what they had hoped for, would they really turn down the only four-year offer at market value?

If that offer isn’t enough — Morosi did not include any potential terms when discussing Castellanos’ talks with the Reds — perhaps some creative terms can be included. A fifth year club option with a $2 million buyout would bring the guarantee to an even $15 million per season. Making it a vesting option that becomes guaranteed with an All-Star appearance or another incentive could ensure that the investment would be worthwhile.

Or how about including an opt out after two seasons? That might help to address concerns that Castellanos has about staying in Detroit. The Tigers could still make a qualifying offer before the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires, and receive compensation if he leaves, while Castellanos would have the freedom to get out of his contract early if he performs well (or doesn’t like the organization’s direction).

Follow the money

The bottom line here is the money, both for the Tigers and Castellanos. Detroit’s payroll has been reduced from $215 million in 2017 to just over $100 million at present, with another $49 million set to come off their books after the 2020 season. Avila has previously said that the team is not yet ready to resume spending.

However, if the Tigers were to make a serious offer, that should go a long way towards overcoming any objections that they previously did not make a serious offer, particularly if other teams are also refusing to engage in discussions on a multi-year contract to his liking.

At some point, a team that is building a contender also needs to pony up to keep at least some of the players that they develop and build a lineup around them. Ideally, they would have a few of those on the major league roster by now. One-year stopgap contracts do little to advance the cause. A team must do more than just draft players and wait for their prospects to grow up if they want to build a winner. Signing Castellanos, currently the best player available, to fill a glaring need would be a good place to start.