Nick Castellanos enjoyed the best offensive season of his career in 2018, posting a robust .298/.354/.500 batting line with 23 home runs, good for a 130 OPS+. He was the best hitter in an underwhelming Tigers lineup, making him a natural trade candidate as he enters the final year of arbitration eligibility. While his offensive profile leaves little to be desired, there is, as always, a caveat: Castellanos is a liability in the field, whether at third base, where he began his career, or in right field, where he started 142 games last season. After transitioning to right late in 2017, Castellanos did improve in 2018 when given the opportunity to play the position full-time – his UZR/150 innings improved from -57.6 in 2017 to -12.3 last season – but he remains an underwhelming defensive performer, and therefore best suited as a designated hitter with an American League club.
If the Tigers plan to deal Castellanos, and they’re said to be “determined” to do so, now is the time. Even if teams are less willing to surrender significant pieces than they might have been a year ago, when he still had two years of team control remaining, he will still be just 27 years of age during the 2019 season, and the single year of team control can be an asset. If Detroit can’t find a match, there is an argument to be made that he could attract a more robust market in July when half of his 2019 salary has already been paid, especially if he continues on his upward trajectory. Regardless, the Tigers, who will almost certainly find themselves well outside of playoff contention in 2019, would likely prefer to cash in now, if only to avoid the worst case scenario of an unceremonious (and uncompensated) free agent departure next winter. The rub here being they need to find a trade partner.
After trading away Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers could certainly add an outfielder, and they happen to be the most recent team linked to Castellanos. Carrying more traditional platoon splits than Puig, Castellanos fits as the right-handed impact bat the Dodgers reportedly seek. Still, the scuttlebutt around Los Angeles paints two different pictures: one where the above trade clears the necessary payroll to approach big fish like Bryce Harper or A.J. Pollock, while the other tale insists management plans to dip under the luxury tax again in 2019. If the latter is true, Castellanos would be a reasonable (and considerably cheaper) alternative.
Much like the Dodgers, the Rays have plainly stated their intentions to bolster their lineup with a right-handed power hitter. Recent acquisition Yandy Diaz might be that guy, but they’ve also been linked to Cardinals’ slugger Jose Martinez and free agent Nelson Cruz, both of whom would fill a similar role as Castellanos. On the other hand, C.J. Cron provides a similar profile at half the cost, and the Rays non-tendered him. Even if the Rays’ value Castellanos’ “versatility,” or simply, if they (understandably) believe him the better overall hitter – it would still be quite the leap to pay Castellanos twice as much as Cron, while also giving up a prospect to get him.
With Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, and Yonder Alonso all donning new uniforms in 2019, the Indians need to replace a considerable amount of the offensive production that carried them to another AL Central title last season. Couple that with their need in the outfield and Castellanos seems a natural target. Still, with the recent trade that brought Jake Bauers and Carlos Santana, both 1B/DH types, to Cleveland, there may not be room for Castellanos if they don’t like his defense in right. As a trio they could rotate between first base, right field and DH, whether that means Bauers in right, Santana at first and Castellanos at DH, or Castellanos in right, Bauers at first and Santana at DH. Add Bradley Zimmer to the mix when he returns from injury and manager Tito Francona would have a defensive option for right to mix-and-match with as well. Whichever particular permutation Francona likes best, there’s enough playing time to keep everyone fed. Given the Indians’ reluctance to add payroll this offseason, however, Castellanos may prove too costly. As a short-term rental, his $11.3MM projected salary is palatable – the prospect cost may be a bigger deterrent, especially if Detroit charges an intra-division premium.
Same goes for the Twins, who with their surprising amount of free payroll space are dark-horse players for many big name free agents/trade targets. They have been tied to Cruz as a free agent for the void left at DH after Robbie Grossman’s non-tender, and they should know Castellanos game intimately, for better or for worse. Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario are penciled into the outfield corners, but both are flexible players who can move around the diamond a little as needed to make room for an impact bat. Besides, the Twins are lapping the the field in the number of players in need of a PR re-launch, so adding Castellanos to a lineup already featuring Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Cron and Jonathan Schoop keeps the Twins on brand. Still, just because someone likes butterscotch doesn’t mean they only like butterscotch, and it might be the Twins have enough [big-bodied right-handed sluggers] butterscotch on hand already.
Returning to the NL, the Rockies or Giants could theoretically find room for Castellanos as a platoon bat, but the best fit is probably Atlanta. The Braves have an open spot in their outfield if Nick Markakis signs elsewhere, and they’ve checked in with the Tigers about Castellanos. But the same questions abound for the Braves as would any National League team. Namely, does Castellanos’ bat make up for his poor defense, and if not, is the $11.3MM price tag plus Detroit’s prospect ask too much to pay for a platoon/bench bat? For non-contenders, almost certainly not, which limits the field of potential dance partners for Detroit. The free agent outfield market is fairly barren, however, and considering the left-leaning rotations among contenders like the Dodgers, Cubs, Yankees, and Red Sox – plus Patrick Corbin in Washington, Kyle Freeland in Colorado, and Blake Snell in Tampa – there should be no shortage of pennant hopefuls capable of putting a lefty masher like Castellanos to work.