Leading up to the lockout, baseball fans saw the kind of flurry of activity on the free agent market that is rarely seen in this sport, generally saved for salary cap sports like football and basketball. It wasn’t just that free agents were finding new teams, but it was many of the top free agents on the board this winter. Of the 14 players who were extended qualifying offers at the start of the offseason, one (Brandon Belt) accepted it, leaving 13 on the open market. And of those 13, nine signed before the lockout began. Simple math tells us that leaves four remaining for when transactions open back up, but from a Boston Red Sox perspective, there’s only one that fits one of the clear needs in the corner outfield and bullpen.
That would be the man whose name is written in big letters at the top of this page, Nick Castellanos. Although he was a 12th round pick, Castellanos was seen as a top prospect pretty much immediately upon turning pro, appearing on multiple top 100 prospect lists prior to his first full season. He did take a bit to adjust to the majors after initially being called up in his age-21 season, but by 2016 he was turning in consistent above-average seasons at the plate.
Over the last few years, he’s taken that performance to another level. Going back to 2018, he has a 126 wRC+, which puts him ahead of hitters like José Abreu, Joey Votto, Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, and Anthony Rizzo, among others. And that performance at the plate culminated in this past season in 2021, when he was a superstar in the middle of the Reds’ offense. Cutting his strikeout rate below 21 percent for the first time in his career while also posting a career-best Isolated Power, Castellanos finished last season hitting .309/.362/.576 for a 140 wRC+.
Offensively, Castellanos fits exactly what the Red Sox purportedly are looking for this winter. After the trade of Hunter Renfroe and leading into the lockout, Chaim Bloom indicated one of his potential post-lockout goals for this roster was to find a strong right-handed bat. Castellanos is exactly that, hitting 34 home runs this past season. That home run total might not be matched in Boston, but whether he’s peppering the Monster or going over it, the overall production will be there. Over his career, Castellanos has consistently put up pull rates higher than league-average, and when he gets a hold of them they go over the fence. Last season, as an example, more than half of the fly balls he hit to the pull side left the yard. Fenway was accentuated the swings of many-a right-handed power hitter, and Castellanos would seemingly be a candidate to be next in that line.
Of course, offense isn’t the whole game, especially when we’re talking about a team that employs J.D. Martinez. Defense is where the prospect of signing Castellanos becomes less palatable, because in an ideal world he is a designated hitter. Although he came up as a third baseman, he quickly got moved off that spot and has spent the last few years as a corner outfielder, and not grading out well by most any metric.
The argument in his favor on this front would be two-fold. For one thing, the other major free agent available as a corner outfielder with major-league experience is Kyle Schwarber, who has plenty of his own defensive question marks. On top of that, we have learned plenty of times that subpar defensive players can be “hidden” in left field at Fenway. Granted, that’s only half the games and someone like Castellanos who has trouble ranging laterally will never be great, but it at least makes it palatable.
If this were to come to fruition, the solace we would take is that the arrangement would only be for one year, with Castellanos able to slide to DH once Martinez’s contract ran up after the 2022 season. Of course, that also potentially opens its own can of worms as DH may be the necessary landing spot for Rafael Devers in the near future as well.
All that said, the defensive questions can be looked over given the performance at the plate from Castellanos over the last few years and how his swing fits at Fenway Park. That brings us to the contract, though, which wouldn’t be cheap, but also wouldn’t be the kind of $300 million deal that can be so risky. Instead, MLB Trade Rumors projects him for a five-year, $115 million deal ($23 million AAV), while FanGraphs readers predict a four-year, $64 million deal ($16 million AAV). I would guess the contract would lean more closely to the MLBTR prediction, but even that is a palatable deal for someone with his talent with the bat.
Of course, we started at the top talking about qualifying offer free agents and how Castellanos is one of the few remaining who fits that bill. That, as we know, means the team who signs him will have to give up draft pick compensation, and for the Red Sox it would mean giving up their second round pick. That cost is certainly not nothing, but it’s also one the team should feel more comfortable giving up this year as compared to the last few. For one thing, the farm system is better in terms of top-end talent and depth.
Perhaps more importantly, even if they lost their second round pick they’d still have two more in that range that they could still hold onto. One, the 41st overall pick, comes from not signing 2021 second rounder Jud Fabian last year. That is their second highest pick, but is protected from being lost as compensation. On top of that, they also received a pick from losing Eduardo Rodriguez which should be between the second and third rounds. That doesn’t totally negate the cost of signing a qualifying offer free agent, but it absolutely makes it more palatable.
As I’ve said many times this month and expect to say many times next month as well, Seiya Suzuki seems like the best outfield fit from my perspective. But if we were to take him out of the conversation for whatever reason, Castellanos may be the second best. Schwarber has already shown his fit both culturally and on the field, which is nothing to sneeze at, but he’s a lefty and the outfield is very left-handed right now. Castellanos would cost a draft pick that Schwarber would not, and also probably just more money in general, but the team has money to spend and the draft pick loss can be hedged with other picks. I’d be lying if I said I had a strong preference between the big-name, defensively-challenged outfielders, but at the very least there is a legitimate case for Castellanos being the better option for this team.