Having already bolstered their bench with super-utilityman Tony Kemp, the Cubs have added a more substantial bat in the form of right fielder Nicholas Castellanos, a pending free agent who has spent his entire career with the Tigers. The 27-year-old righty swinger heads from the Motor City to the Windy City in exchange for a pair of right-handed pitching prospects.
OF Nicholas Castellanos
A supplemental first-round pick in the 2010 draft out of a Florida high school, Castellanos spent the bulk of his first four full major league seasons (2014-17) playing third base — and badly at that (-25.8 UZR, -64 DRS). During that time, he hit for a modest 104 wRC+ in 2,304 plate appearances, good for just 4.8 WAR. The bulk of that value arrived in the last two of those years, as he began to hit for more power and trimmed his strikeout rate. He bopped a career-high 26 homers in 2017, the same year that he took up playing right field in September, two months after J.D. Martinez was traded to the Diamondbacks. Though he hit only 23 homers last year, he set across-the-board career highs in all three slash stats (.298/.354/.500) as well as wRC+ (130) and WAR (3.0).
Castellanos has been unable to match that performance this year, hitting .273/.328/.462 for a 106 wRC+ with just 11 homers in 439 PA. His average exit velocity has dropped from 89.6 mph to 88.3, and his xwOBA, too, from .377 to .335. He has chased pitches out of the zone like never before (a career-high 41.2% O-Swing%), and while he continues to crush fastballs (as Devan Fink noted last week), he has been vulnerable to changeups outside the zone and has experienced a spike in popups on such pitches; where he hit for a career-best 167 wRC+ against changeups last year, he’s back down to 117 this year, though he has cut his swinging strike rate on them by more than half (from 21.8% to 10.2%). He has struggled against sliders, whiffing on them 22.6% of the time, and hitting for just a 74 wRC+ against them. Pitchers have noticed; changeups and sliders have accounted for 36.3% of the pitches he’s seen, up from about 28-32% from 2016-18.
From the Cubs’ standpoint, perhaps the most compelling thing about Castellanos is that he mashes lefties. He’s hit .347/.415/.611 for a 166 wRC+ in 82 PA against them this year, and .340/.392/.590 for a 160 wRC+ against them since the start of 2017. By comparison, he’s hit just .257/.308/.429 for a 93 wRC+ in 357 PA against righties this year and .266/.319/.458 for a 106 wRC+ against them since the start of 2017. As a team, the Cubs have hit just .235/.319/.423 against lefties; their 92 wRC+ against them is tied for 19th in the majors.
What the acquisition of Castellanos suggests is an outfield configuration that favors offense over defense, with Jason Heyward playing center more often. Albert Almora Jr.’s struggles this year placed them among the Replacement Level Killers at the position. He’s hit for just a 71 wRC+, while Heyward has hit for a 110 wRC+, his best in four seasons as a Cub. The J-Hey Kid’s defensive metrics in center field, which have generally been in the black in his limited duty there, are in the red this year (-3.7 UZR, -6 DRS in 42 games, including 34 starts). Couple that with Castellanos’ shaky work in right (-4.0 UZR, -6 DRS) and it’s clear they might be sacrificing something, though they might better get away with such a lineup when the more ground-ball-heavy Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish are on their mound, or when a southpaw is on the opposing one.
As for the two pitching prospects, the 23-year-old Lange was 19th on The Board for the Cubs, a 40 Future Value pitcher, while the 22-year-old Richan was unranked, a 35 FV pitcher. Lange, the Cubs’ 2017 first-round pick out of Louisiana State, lists at 6-foot-3 and 197 pounds, having split his season between High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee; he’s been lit for a 5.82 ERA in 86.2 innings and has struck out just 19.9% of all batters faced while walking 11.3%, though his ability to generate ground balls has limited him to 0.83 homers per nine. He’s got a violent, deceptive delivery that helps his fastball play up from its comparatively modest range (sits 91-93 mph, touches 95). He projects as a reliever who pitches off his secondary stuff (curve and change, both of which project to be above average) quite a lot. “If he’s living off of deception, perhaps his future role will be limited to a one time through the order type of guy, but that’s still more than a generic 40 FV reliever,” wrote our prospect team in December.
Richan, who lists at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, was the Cubs’ 2018 second-round pick out of the University of San Diego. This year at Myrtle Beach, he’s pitched to a 3.97 ERA and a 3.52 FIP while striking out 22.2% of batters in 93 innings. He’s a 35 Future Value guy, a sixth or seventh starter type whose fastball sits 88-91 mph and tops out at 93. His slider and changeup are about average, and he pounds the strike zone. He’s the type of pitcher every organization needs, but not an impact guy.
Given that Castellanos was set to hit free agency, this move is a boon, as he now avoids receiving a qualifying offer and has a chance to play in the postseason. He should definitely help the Cubs. The Tigers, whose rebuild is sputtering along, have obtained some depth that might be more useful than the compensation pick they would have received without trading Castellanos, but this is hardly a game-changer for them.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.