It’s undeniable that Nicholas Castellanos has changed his 2019 storyline. Castellanos has hit .330/.365/.665 as a Chicago Cub with 15 homers and 35 RBIs before even completing his second month with the team. When the Cubs won the World Series, they ranked second in the National League in runs scored, behind only the team playing on Planet Coors. The Cubs were a middle-of-the-pack offense in 2019 through the trade deadline, and the main culprit was underwhelming production from the outfield. Castellanos’s surge been enough for one particularly optimistic national writer to predict that Castellanos would get $100 million in free agency.
If you go by the first four months of the season, 2019 looked like a weak followup to Castellanos’s 2018 campaign, when he set career-bests in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and WAR. As one of the best free-agents-to-be at a corner outfield position, it appeared likely that Castellanos would start 2019 with a new home given the state of the Detroit Tigers. Castellanos expressed a desire to have a trade completed before the season started, but no such transaction materialized until the trade deadline. That deadline trade was no blockbuster, with the Tigers only squeezing from the Cubs a single prospect ranked by THE BOARD, and a 40 FV prospect at that.
At the trade deadline, ZiPS projected the Chicago Cubs as the team that had the most to gain from adding Castellanos. But the longer-term question remains: should his post-deadline flurry change how clubs think of Castellanos going into the winter?
The first place to look, given that I just so happen to have a projection tool on-hand, would be the projections at the time of the trade compared to right now. So let’s crank up the ol’ Predict-o-Matic 2000 and see what it spits out, using a league-neutral park.
Given the league’s general lack of interest in middling corner outfielders in recent years, Castellanos didn’t appear to be headed for a large payday this winter. While a corner outfielder with roughly league-average offense has value, Castellanos has historically given back a win a year thanks to below-average defense. ZiPS projected a two-year, $23 million contract for Castellanos at the time of the trade.
For roughly six weeks of performance, that’s actually an impressive shift in a projection, with Castellanos adding about eight points of OPS+/wRC+ to his long-term outlook. That’s enough, when combined with his defense, to put him more firmly in league-average territory. Projections are an uncertain thing, and the reason they can shift around so significantly is that the task of projecting a constantly changing player is more or less like trying to spear fog with fork. ZiPS projects a three-year contract worth $45 million and $31 million over a two-year deal.
Things get more interesting if you can sign Castellanos as a designated hitter. ZiPS does not give a positional penalty to a designated hitter relative to a first baseman, as there is compelling evidence that players hit worse as designated hitters than they do when they’re playing the field, even when we do our best to filter out the effect of injuries. I haven’t published my work on this subject, but it’s one that Mitchel Lichtman has discussed in more concrete terms.
Playing DH would maximize Castellanos’s value to his next team, but only half the teams in baseball would have the ability to use him in this manner, short of a very surprising rule change this offseason that implements the DH in the National League for 2020. As a DH, ZiPS projects a three-year, $60 million contract for Castellanos based on production alone. The problem is, how many AL teams are likely to give him that contract?
There’s no room on the Yankees, and the Red Sox would likely prioritize J.D. Martinez if he opts out. The Astros already have a crunch figuring out how to get Kyle Tucker playing time, and the Angels have Shohei Ohtani. The Rangers are happy with Shin-Soo Choo at DH. If the Tampa Bay Rays had an unusual (for them) notion to make a player fabulously wealthy, they have better internal options. It’s hard to imagine the Indians, after not even giving Michael Brantley a qualifying offer, would make a significantly better offer to a lesser player with no history as an Indian. That kind of leaves the Twins and perhaps the White Sox, and that’s probably not a formula for a bidding war.
Would a team really pay a lot more for Castellanos than the projection? There was a time in which players on the less valuable side of the defensive spectrum did tend to get larger salaries than the projected WAR suggested. Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, and Choo notably received deals that crushed what the projections thought they would get.
The catch, of course, is that these contracts didn’t work out all that well (ZiPS liked the comparable Joey Votto contract) and the market for these types of players has changed considerably. For example, ZIPS projected Martinez’s five-year deal right at the $110 million he got (though the opt-out increases his value). None of Nelson Cruz ($22 million projected vs. $14 million actual), Yoenis Cespedes ($104 million vs. $110 million), or Justin Upton ($99 million vs. $106 million) landed deals that crushed the projections. Eric Hosmer’s contract looks a lot more like the exception than the rule.
I’m unaware of any reason the market will act very differently this offseason compared to previous ones; I think a new CBA is the only real hope for this. Teams weren’t falling over themselves to pick up Castellanos in July, so you need teams to drastically shift their opinions of Castellanos based on one-third of a season. He remains essentially the same fastball hitter that he’s always been — just better — and it’s a tough argument to say Comerica Park was truly keeping Castellanos down. Comerica may have robbed Castellanos of home runs over the years, but he’s never been an exit velocity star, and even this season, his improved 90.1-mph average exit velocity with the Cubs would only get him into the edge of the top 100 for 2019. ZiPS estimates expected home runs based on Statcast and similar data and only estimates that Castellanos is “missing” 1.8 homers a year from the expectations.
If the Cubs go deep into the 2019 playoffs and Nicholas Castellanos continues to pummel opposing pitchers, he’ll have earned more than a brief footnote in the history of the Cubs. Very few teams in baseball pay for storylines, however. Castellanos isn’t a star and it’s unlikely he’ll be paid like one this offseason.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.