Reds See Opportunity in Signing Castellanos

Nicholas Castellanos is not the last domino to fall in free agency, but he’s pretty close to the end of the line. After Josh Donaldson signed with the Twins and Marcell Ozuna settled for a one-year deal with the Braves, Castellanos was the next logical domino. And while the Cincinnati Reds appeared to have their outfield slots spoken for after signing Shogo Akiyama, theirs was also an outfield brimming with question marks regarding health, playing time, and performance. The Reds needed to go further to solidify their plan to compete in 2020. The result is a four-year deal worth $64 million with an opt-out after the first and second year, with C. Trent Rosencrans, Ken Rosenthal, Jon Heyman, and Jeff Passan reporting the various details.

It’s been a few months, but the contract is fairly close to the four-year, $56 million deal the crowd and Kiley McDaniel predicted as part of our Top 50 Free Agents list. Yasiel Puig and Brock Holt are the only remaining unsigned players on the entire list. The opt-outs do add value to Castellanos’ contract, but this contract is paying for a relatively optimistic view of Castellanos to begin with. The contract comes in sharp contrast to the one-year deal that Marcell Ozuna just signed, particularly given the opt-out. Ozuna is just one year older than Castellanos, but given the limited number of suitors for corner outfielders, one team having a strong, negative impression of Ozuna, or a potentially positive view of Castellanos, could have had a significant affect on the negotiations. That Ozuna came burdened with a qualifying offer and its attendant draft pick penalty might have been just enough to separate the two players; the pick the Braves surrendered was a late-third-rounder due to signing Will Smith earlier in free agency.

As for Castellanos’ strengths, his bat has carried him. The following table shows outfielders with at least 1,000 plate appearances over the last two years, sorted by wRC+:

Best Hitting Outfielders: 2018-2019
Mike Trout 1208 84 .449 .637 185 18.4
Christian Yelich 1231 80 .415 .631 170 15.4
Mookie Betts 1320 61 .413 .578 158 17
J.D. Martinez 1306 79 .392 .593 154 9.1
Juan Soto 1153 56 .403 .535 143 8.5
Cody Bellinger 1292 72 .375 .550 142 11.4
George Springer 1176 61 .363 .507 136 9.4
Ronald Acuña Jr. 1202 67 .365 .532 133 9.3
Kris Bryant 1091 44 .379 .496 131 7.1
Bryce Harper 1377 69 .383 .503 130 8
Ketel Marte 1208 46 .361 .518 129 9.7
Michael Brantley 1268 39 .368 .486 129 7.7
Nicholas Castellanos 1342 50 .346 .513 126 5.7
Tommy Pham 1224 42 .368 .456 125 7.4
Michael Conforto 1286 61 .356 .471 123 6.7
David Peralta 1037 42 .348 .494 121 5.6
Charlie Blackmon 1330 61 .361 .537 121 4.8
Rhys Hoskins 1365 63 .359 .475 120 5
Kyle Schwarber 1120 64 .347 .503 118 5.7
Starling Marte 1192 43 .335 .481 115 6.7

Castellanos has been the 13th-best hitting outfielder in baseball the last two years. If you remove Kris Bryant because he’s a third baseman, and then take out center fielders like Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, George Springer, Ronald Acuña Jr., and Ketel Marte, Castellanos was seventh among all corner outfielders. His time in Chicago certainly helped his cause, with a 154 wRC+ after the trade, but it wouldn’t be fair to call him a streaky hitter as he has generally avoided prolonged slumps throughout his career. Castellanos’ hitting isn’t really the question; the defense is the problem. The 5.7 WAR mark above puts Castellanos near the middle of the pack for everyday outfielders. Last week Tony Wolfe wondered if questions about outfield defense were holding up free agency:

After posting an astonishingly poor -64 DRS over four seasons at third base, Detroit moved him into the outfield, where he didn’t fare much better. He’s been worth -28 DRS over just two seasons in right field, a bleak picture that Statcast data more or less reaffirms. No one in baseball was close to reaching the depths of his -24 OAA in 2018, and while he improved upon that this past season, that improvement simply moved him from the worst in the game to merely 21 spots from the worst.

For Castellanos, the one-year change would make a big difference in evaluation if it’s real, even if he still rates poorly on defense. Back in September, Dan Szymborski ran ZiPS projections for Castellanos in a few different scenarios. In those early projections, he was worth 6.9 WAR as an outfielder and about a win and a half more than that as a designated hitter, even after you account for positional differences. As for what ZiPS says right now, here’s what Szymborski provided me:

ZiPS Projection – Nicholas Castellanos
2020 .281 .335 .521 612 89 172 48 6 29 94 47 156 2 119 -8 2.3
2021 .278 .334 .521 576 84 160 47 6 27 88 46 146 2 119 -8 2.0
2022 .278 .334 .524 561 81 156 45 6 27 87 44 140 2 119 -9 2.0
2023 .276 .332 .519 540 76 149 42 7 25 82 42 132 2 117 -9 1.7

That’s not great, but we see how age benefits Castellanos as he doesn’t decline at all as a hitter until he’s 31 years old and stays at least as an average player until then. Those projections are right in line with what teams have been paying in the free agent market this offseason. Steamer is much less optimistic, giving Castellanos a 112 wRC+ with roughly the same defense resulting in a 1.5 WAR. If that’s who Castellanos is, then the Reds have vastly overpaid relative to the rest of the market.

It’s true that Castellanos posted much better defensive numbers across the board last season, ending up at -9 runs by DRS (-19 in 2018), -5 runs by UZR (-13 in 2018), and -7 outs by Statcast’s OAA (-24 in 2018). However, just because the three systems agree that Castellanos got better results last year (which is likely true), that doesn’t necessarily mean his defensive talents improved. The sample is small enough that we should incorporate the previous poor numbers as well, and we see the projections essentially splitting the difference in UZR from 2018 and 2019 in forecasting 2020 numbers.

If we did want to be optimistic about Castellanos’ defense, we’d need to dig a bit deeper, as Mike Petriello did back in November. Petriello pointed to Castellanos’ inexperience in the outfield (24 major league starts prior to 2018), an improved jump, and the fact that his improvements were coming on the easy plays as reasons to think he might only be slightly bad at defense. Castellanos’ improved numbers weren’t due to a handful of fluky, really difficult catches. He was just getting better at tracking down the easy ones, which might translate going forward. Getting out of Comerica Park and it’s large right field and into the considerably smaller ballpark in Cincinnati should also help by giving him less ground to cover. If last season represented Castellanos’ outfield talents, that alone would be worth more than a win over the lifetime of the deal. If last season was just a blip, Cincinnati seems likely to be overpaying compared to the rest of the market.

The Reds currently have Castellanos, Jesse Winker, Shogo Akiyama, Aristides Aquino, and Nick Senzel as outfielders worthy of playing time, though only Castellanos looks locked into a full-time role. That will only lead to more speculation regarding Nick Senzel’s future with the team. The team could still try him at shortstop in the hopes that he could morph into an adequate-fielding version of Ben Zobrist, but there might not be enough playing time in the outfield for Senzel with the current set of players. When the Reds signed Shogo Akiyama, I mentioned the possibility of the Reds trying to swing a Francisco Lindor trade; this signing certainly doesn’t make that scenario less plausible. The Reds are right in the middle of a four-team fight for the NL Central, but one more big move would make them favorites instead of solid contenders. The Reds just got a little bit better, and they certainly improved their floor with all the depth they have in the outfield, but it’s hard not to think they might have another, more significant trick up their sleeves.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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I was skim reading this in the pub and somehow missed Nick Senzel’s name as I saw the reference to trying him at shortstop.
A few funny looks as I nearly choked on my beer! Loving this off-season and the teams trying to improve.