Should the Cubs Sign Nicholas Castellanos?
Even when putting budgetary constraints aside, there are many baseball reasons why signing Nicholas Castellanos is not a wise decision.
As any Cubs fan should know, this offseason has been one of inaction and indecisiveness. There’s so much uncertainty surrounding the direction the Cubs are going, it feels like they are exploring this offseason without a compass. The only constant that has been circulating around Cubs rumors is the continued, mutual interest between the organization and Nicholas Castellanos. But when you take every baseball factor into consideration, is acquiring Castellanos really a move the Cubs should make? The answer is no.
Although I do not think it is wise for the Cubs to sign Castellanos, that does not mean I don’t appreciate what he did for the team during the second half of last season. He put up a 154 wRC+ since the trade deadline and was a breath of fresh air in the locker room, evident by his will to play every game like its Opening Day. With that being said, there are many other compelling reasons why signing him is not advantageous to the organization, both in the short term and the long term.
First off, even though Castellanos was remarkable at the plate, he was and would continue to be a detriment to the Cubs’ defense. This isn’t just because he was -9 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) last season, sixth-worst among quailed outfielders, it’s also because he makes Jason Heyward, one of the better right fielders in baseball, play out of position. Heyward was +7 in DRS in right field in 2019 (sixth-best in baseball among RF with 600+ innings), but he only played 618 innings at the position. He didn’t even accumulate enough innings to be considered a ‘qualified’ right fielder. If he did, that DRS number increases considerably, putting him among the top three. Instead, Heyward had to play 603 innings in center field and racked up -4 DRS, which was ninth-worst in baseball among CF. So, instead of having approximately +14 DRS if Heyward solely played right field, you have a guy who turned in an overall pedestrian defensive performance with +3 DRS. I can’t emphasize enough how substantial that 11-run positional DRS difference is. It’s the difference between below-average defense and elite defense at the right field position.
Speaking of defense, the Cubs were below average in every team-wide defensive metric this past season for the first time since before 2015. Want to know one of the biggest factors nobody speaks of that allowed the Cubs to win the World Series in 2016? Defense. They were an MLB-best +107 DRS in 2016, 26 runs better than the next best. In 2019, they were -13, 21st in baseball. Once again, words can’t explain how significant that 120-run DRS difference is. You can talk all day about the bullpen, injuries, and the starting rotation crumbling down the stretch of last season. But truthfully, the biggest difference, by far, between the 2019 team and the 2016 team was defense. And although there are more issues with the defense than Heyward playing out of position and Castellanos’ putrid metrics, both are at the top of the list and prove that signing Castellanos is not a smart move.
A second reason why signing Castellanos is not a smart move is because, unbeknownst to most of the fanbase, they have a cheaper and better option to play left field (assuming Heyward locks down RF all of next season, as explained above). Yes, Castellanos dominated offensively once the Cubs acquired him and received constant love from the fanbase because of it. But you know who actually had better numbers than Castellanos since the trade deadline? Kyle Schwarber. He accumulated a 1.020 OPS and 158 wRC+, good for 10th- and 11th-best in baseball. He objectively outperformed Castellanos at the plate since the trade deadline, but media bias caused this realization to go unnoticed with most of the fanbase.
On top of the superior offensive production, Schwarber is also a better defensive outfielder than Castellanos. He had a horrid defensive season in 2017, but ever since then has been league-average, proven by his -1 DRS this past season. This obviously isn’t something to brag about, but it’s far superior to Castellanos. And perhaps the most convincing reason that makes choosing Schwarber over Castellanos to play left field the wise decision is the cost. Schwarber is still in the arbitration phase of his contract until after 2021 and is set to make just $7.01 million next season. On the other hand, Castellanos will probably receive a contract that costs $12-16 million annually. Given that the performance on the field for each player is very comparable (although I’d personally give the nod to Schwarber, as explained above), Schwarber being ~$5-9 million cheaper makes the decision between the two not really a decision at all.
The last reason I will bring up is simple. Yes, it is understood that Castellanos lit up the stat sheet once acquired by the Cubs. But let me ask you this: did it really make the team as a whole that much better? I mean, the Cubs were heavily favored to win the division before the trade deadline. Then after making the “big splash” by acquiring Castellanos, which supposedly made the team better, what happened next? A colossal choke job that not only lost the division but also a Wild Card spot. Look, I’m not saying this collapse was Castellanos’ fault, but looking at his individual stats to rationalize why the acquisition was a success is ill-conceived. Given the defensive argument mentioned above and how the end of the season played out, I’m not so sure the sum of the parts really improved after the Cubs acquired Castellanos. And given that Schwarber and Heyward still remain on the roster, it would mean the Cubs, if they elect to sign Castellanos, would essentially be making that exact same trade deadline acquisition again. Is replicating the past one of the goals this organization set this offseason? No. The goal is to move forward in a different direction.