Nick Castellanos
by Matt Wilkes

Should the Reds target Nick Castellanos in free agency?

Free agency officially opens on Monday, and the Reds should be busy. The primary goal is improving an offense that ranked among the league’s worst in 2019, and outfield is one area the front office will try to address. Steve Mancuso already covered how Marcell Ozuna could be a bargain in free agency. Another name at the top of the free agent outfielder list is a familiar one to Cincinnati fans: Nick Castellanos.

Traded from the Tigers to the Cubs in July, Castellanos had a monster second half with 48 extra-base hits and a 134 wRC+. He finished the season with 58 doubles, becoming the 10th player in MLB history to reach that mark. Castellanos will turn 28 during spring training, meaning the Reds would still get him during his prime. Defense, however, is a major concern. Does the offense outweigh the shortcomings with the glove?

How Castellanos fills an offensive hole

Between his time with the Tigers and Cubs, Castellanos was a .289/.337/.525 hitter in 664 plate appearances in 2019. In addition to his 58 doubles, Castellanos slugged a personal-high 27 home runs, which of course comes with the “juiced ball” caveat. It was a career year, to be sure, but Castellanos has been the pinnacle of consistency over the last four seasons. Since 2015, he’s never had a wRC+ worse than 111 (2017) and posted one as high as 130 (2018). His wOBA has hovered between .341 and .363 — league average during that time was .317. While he did have a .337 batting average on balls in play in 2019 — well above league average — it was right in line with his career mark (.333).

Castellanos brings a solid mix of contact and power to his game with a career .277 average and .471 slugging percentage. His swing plane (15.2° career launch angle) makes him more of a gap hitter than a home-run threat. Since 2015, only Mookie Betts has more doubles than Castellanos (198). Doubles tend to get suppressed slightly in Great American Ball Park due to small outfield, but not enough to be a major concern for someone who hits them at an elite clip. As far as platoon splits go, Castellanos mashes left-handed pitching (career 137 wRC+). He’s no slouch against righties (104 wRC+), but his game goes to the next level against southpaws.

Unsurprisingly, Castellanos hits the ball hard with consistency. In the Statcast era (since 2015), his average exit velocity (89.1 mph) ranks 50th among 142 hitters with 1,500 batted balls. That’s higher than players such as Jay Bruce, Francisco Lindor, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Joey Votto. He’s had little variation in that number, rarely dropping below league average:

Over that same time, Castellanos ranks 11th among that group in xwOBA on contact (.449). His line-drive approach plays an enormous role in this (as well as his higher-than-average BABIP). Take a look at some of the names he’s in the conversation with in xwOBACON:

His wxOBA (.365) in all plate appearances doesn’t rank quite as highly compared to his peers because of his below-average strikeout and walk rates. But he hits the ball hard, and that’s important. The Reds ranked 26th in xwOBA and 30th — dead last — in average exit velocity last season.

If there’s one red flag in his offensive game, it’s the aforementioned plate approach. Castellanos is an aggressive hitter, with a 36.5% chase rate and just a 6.4% walk rate for his career. He has quite a bit swing and miss to his game as well (14.2 SwStr%), although his strikeout rate isn’t quite in alarming territory (23.0%).

Just how bad is Castellanos defensively?

Now we get to the reason Castellanos isn’t regarded as one of the best players in the game. His defense isn’t just bad — it’s among the worst in baseball.

He started his career in Detroit as a third baseman, playing the position full-time until 2018. Struggles at the hot corner, as well as the Tigers’ trade for third-base prospect Jeimer Candelario, forced Castellanos to right field (he also played 35 innings in left field with the Cubs). His performance didn’t improve — at all.

Over the last two years, 26 players have played at least 1,000 innings in right field. Castellanos is the worst in FanGraphs Def rating (-29.7), Ultimate Zone Rating (-17.3), and Defensive Runs Saved (-28) by a long shot. By Outs Above Average, Castellanos is dead last among all outfielders the last two years (-31). The good news: he showed marginal improvement in 2019. Still, only Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon and Seattle’s Domingo Santana were worse in OAA among right fielders. Even acknowledging that those metrics aren’t perfect, he’s unquestionably one of the worst right-fielders in baseball.

Statcast helps us break down why Castellanos is so bad. The system measures an outfielder’s “jump” using reaction time (feet covered in the first 1.5 seconds from the time the ball leaves the bat), burst (feet covered between 1.6 and 3.0 seconds), and route efficiency (feet covered by the outfielder versus feet actually needed to cover in a direct, straight-line route to the ball).

In 2019, Castellanos was exactly average in reaction time — an improvement over 2018, when he covered 0.8 fewer feet in the first 1.5 seconds compared to other outfielders. He really struggles in the next 1.5 seconds, however, coming in at 1.9 feet below average. Only 13 outfielders had a slower burst. His route efficiency was also poor; compared to the average outfielder, he ran an additional 0.5 unnecessary feet on fly balls.

What would Castellanos cost?

In September, national writer Jon Morosi speculated that Castellanos could get over $100 million in free agency due to his young age. Remember that J.D. Martinez, Morosi’s comp here, signed a five-year, $110 million contract with the Red Sox at age 30. As FanGraphs Dan Szymborski’s argues, though, that’s highly unlikely. Martinez is similarly limited defensively, but he’s elite with the bat. While Castellanos is a solid hitter and certainly opened a lot of eyes with his performance as a Cub, he’s not in the Martinez category of hitters. Szymborski’s ZiPS system projects Castellanos to get two years and $31 million or three years and $45 million. Those projections would be right in the Reds’ wheelhouse, as it would allow them to make further additions to improve the team in 2020. ZiPS projects a three-year, $60 million deal if he goes back to the American League and signs as a designated hitter like Martinez did.

Conclusions

If the mission of the offseason is improving the offense, Castellanos checks that box. He should have several years of strong production left at his young age. Cost won’t be an obstacle in signing Castellanos unless his market becomes unexpectedly competitive. That said, he’s probably not a buy-low bargain like Ozuna could be.

For all the good Castellanos would do for the offense, adding him to the mix would take the Reds’ outfield defense from bad to abysmal. Jesse Winker is also one of the worst outfielders in the game. Nick Senzel improved as the year went along and he adjusted to center field, bringing him to roughly average in his rookie year. There’s room for him to become an above-average center fielder, but it’s not certain he’ll play there next season due to durability concerns.

Aristides Aquino impressed with the glove in a small sample in August and September. But signing Castellanos would likely push Aquino out of the starting job in right field unless the Reds move Senzel to second base and go with Winker in center and Castellanos in left. The mere thought is enough to make outfield coaches everywhere shudder; that combination would cost Reds pitchers a lot of runs. Those three would undeniably create a formidable trio at the plate, however. Signing Castellanos could also make Winker and Aquino expendable if the Reds want to make a trade for a center fielder or middle infielder.

If any National League team is well-equipped to deal with Castellanos’ defense, though, it’s the Reds. The pitching staff was second (by the slimmest of margins: 0.1 percentage points) in the league in strikeout rate in 2019 at 25.6%. More strikeouts means fewer balls in play and fewer opportunities for bad defenders to burn the team. The Reds were also sixth in ground-ball rate (44.3%), which can also limit the damage poor outfielders can do if it continues.

Castellanos isn’t the perfect fit, but he would help address Cincinnati’s biggest need next season and beyond.

Photo Credit: KA Sports Photos

Matt Wilkes got hooked on Reds baseball after attending his first game in Cinergy Field at 6 years old, and he hasn’t looked back. As a kid, he was often found imitating his favorite players — Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns — in the backyard. When he finally went inside, he was leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 or keeping stats for whatever game was on TV. He started writing about baseball in 2014 and has become fascinated by analytics and all the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Columbus. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

4 Comments

  • Kyle

    Any chance he could fit at second base? Reds have dealt with below average fielders at the position in the past (Gennett, Dietrich), not ideal but an option. Would force Senzel to stay in CF which may not be the worst thing as many of the other outfield options are already rough in the outfield.

    • Matt Wilkes

      He’s never played 2B before, so I think it’s pretty unlikely the Reds would ask an already-bad fielder to learn a new, harder position.