While the Tigers weren’t considered favorites to win the AL Central coming into 2017, they certainly didn’t appear to be candidates to own the worst record in baseball. But slow starts from Justin Verlander and Ian Kinsler, along with the continued decline of other highly-paid veterans such as Miguel Cabrera, Jordan Zimmerman, Victor Martinez and Francisco Rodriguez, led Detroit to their first losing record at the All-Star break since 2010.
By the July 31st trade deadline, the organization had already shipped catcher Alex Avila and reliever Justin Wilson to the Cubs in exchange for younger players. On the final day of August, they doubled down on their rebuild by moving the large contracts of Verlander and outfielder Justin Upton in exchange for minor leaguers.
Formerly a third baseman, Castellanos was moved to right field amid concerns about his glove at the hot corner. But while his performance at third was subpar, his work in right field this year was a disaster. In a 173-inning sample, Castellanos racked up -7 defensive runs saved while checking in with a catastrophic -80.5 runs per 150 games by measure of Ultimate Zone Rating. Some of this is the result of lack of experience in the outfield. It’s easy to imagine him improving his glove work to some extent with more training and playing time, but the transition hasn’t exactly been a smooth one to this point.
The real value, of course, lies in his bat. Castellanos smacked 44 homers to go along with a .277/.325/.493 slash line across 1112 plate appearances since the start of 2016, good for a 114 wRC+ during that span. Perhaps his most impressive skill has been his ability to make hard contact; his hard-contact rate sits at an impressive 40.4% over the past two seasons, and his 89.2 MPH average exit velocity during that time ranks 67th among major league hitters who’ve made contact in at least 500 at-bats. Even with subpar defense, his offensive output made him worth close to two full wins above replacement in 2017.
As Jon Heyman of Fan Rag noted when he first broke the news, it’s surprising that Castellanos was never claimed on trade waivers. He only made $3MM this season, and can be controlled for two more years through arbitration. There’s a raise coming, but it shouldn’t be too onerous. Lucas Duda earned a $2.525MM bump after hitting 27 homers and knocking in 73 runs across 554 plate appearances in 2015. Castellanos could probably exceed that increase — he hit 26 homers in 2017, but amassed over 100 more plate appearances and accumulated 28 more RBI than did Duda– though it suggests a reasonable ballpark figure.
Even if Castellanos projects only as a 2-WAR player, he might well cost less than $6MM in 2018 and can be controlled in 2019 as well. It seems as though there is some excess value in his contract, and the Tigers aren’t likely to be contenders over the next two seasons. With all this in mind, it seems probable that the Tigers will try to shop him his offseason.
The tough part about imagining a Castellanos trade, even if you are relatively bullish on his outlook, is that teams don’t often get much in return for league-average position players with this amount of control and at this general price point. When the Nationals traded Yunel Escobar to the Angels before the 2016 season, he had one year and $7MM left on his contract, as well as a $7MM option for 2017. They received Trevor Gott in return, a fireballing reliever who was believed to have some upside but hasn’t yet panned out. The Rockies got a chance to take a shot on bouncebacks from Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles when they sent Dexter Fowler to the Astros; both players were thought to have some upside, but neither worked out. Most recently, the Dodgers coughed up a highly valued prospect in Jose De Leon in order to net Logan Forsythe from the Rays prior to the 2017 season, though De Leon has been hurt all year.
The market for Castellanos is somewhat cloudy. It’s unclear whether teams will view him as a third baseman or an outfield project. His 2017 performance also shows him to be far better against left-handed pitching (.939 OPS, 16% K rate) than right-handers (.769 OPS, 23% K rate). That, combined with his poor defense, may lead some teams to view him as more of a platoon hitter than a regular, which would certainly limit what type of prospects they’d be willing to give up. That being said, there are a few potential landing spots for Castellanos.
- The Indians could be in the market for a right-handed hitting outfielder if Brandon Guyer can’t turn things around at the plate, or if they’re unable to retain veteran Austin Jackson.
- The Blue Jays have made it clear that they plan to try and win in 2018, so they could potentially go after Castellanos if they decide to move on from struggling veteran Jose Bautista, though they could opt to give top prospect Anthony Alford a shot.
- With Yasiel Puig falling out of favor once again, the Dodgers could conceivably become a potential suitor. Their outfield is full of question marks, and they’d be one candidate to pay Castellanos’s salary even if they only plan to use him in a platoon role.
- If they can’t re-sign slugging phenom J.D. Martinez, the Diamondbacks could potentially look at acquiring Castellanos as a cheaper right field alternative. The D-backs’ payroll is already set to pay a combined $58.6MM to Zack Greinke, Paul Goldschmidt and Yasmany Tomas in 2018, and they’ll also be paying significant amounts to several arb-eligible players.
- Similarly, the Angels could look to trade for Castellanos as a replacement if they don’t end up retaining Justin Upton, who seems likely to exercise the opt-out clause in his contract at the end of the 2017 season.
- With the Braves nearing the end of their rebuilding process, they have their sights set on contending in 2018 and 2019. If they decide to move on from Rio Ruiz, Castellanos could man third base in Atlanta for the next two years.
Further complicating the market for Castellanos as a third baseman is the glut of similar right-handed hitting free agents at that position. Righties Yunel Escobar, Todd Frazier and Eduardo Nunez all offer similar production from the position, with Mike Moustakas offering a premium option who bats from the left side of the plate. The free agent market for outfielders is just as competitive. J.D. Martinez is a clear superior option as far as righty-hitting corner outfielders, though not all teams will be able to afford the type of contract he’s likely to command. Lorenzo Cain is a far better player, though he’ll obviously be hired as a center fielder and therefore will compete in a different market. Austin Jackson, Melky Cabrera, Colby Rasmus, Carlos Gomez and Carlos Gonzalez all offer production at (or close to) Castellanos’ level, although each has his own set of question marks. Jay Bruce offers similar production for teams interested in a lefty slugger.
So it seems that the biggest roadblock in trying to move Castellanos is that players like him aren’t in short supply. If the free agent dominoes fall too quickly, the Tigers might find themselves unable to get even a modest prospect return, and could opt to simply wait until the trade deadline to see if his market improves. In any case, it’s hard to imagine Detroit getting a top 100 prospect in return for their young slugger unless they opt to package him with another asset.
The Tigers are in a really tough position with Castellanos. They have no great need for his services during their rebuilding years, and could benefit by shedding his $14MM price tag through 2019. Unfortunately, the plethora of alternatives on the free agent market means that the Tigers have little to no leverage in negotiations with other teams. He’s got too much value to simply unload for a garden-variety minor leaguer, but if Detroit can’t trade him this offseason or at the 2018 trade deadline, they could end up in the same situation next year at this time. At that point, his trade value will be even lower than it is now. Whether or not Castellanos will be in a Tigers uniform come April is anybody’s guess.
What do you think will happen? Will the Tigers be able to trade Nicholas Castellanos?
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