April 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tony Paul

Tigers might be smart to lock up Nick Castellanos now, despite limited experience

Nick Castellanos has five hits in 13 at-bats so far this season. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Detroit – There are big things on the minds of Tigers brass these days, namely whether a restructured roster – different to be sure, but intriguing – can, in fact, can keep the ballclub atop the American League Central.

Eventually, though, there will be big decisions to make.

Max Scherzer is a free agent at year's end, having left a $144-million contract offer on the table. Victor Martinez is in the final season of his four-year, $50 million contract with Detroit, and Torii Hunter is on the back end of his two-year, $26 million deal.

A bit further down the road, Rick Porcello and Austin Jackson are free agents after next season – both on track to get big raises, and soon.

But before Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski and his chief negotiator, John Westhoff, get down to business with those contract discussions, one other player might be atop their keep-at-all-costs list.

Nick Castellanos. Yes, Nick Castellanos.

The rookie third baseman is a mere 15 games into his major-league career. Still, it's a career that, by most accounts, projects to be plenty productive. There's a reason most opposing general managers have, at one time or another, inquired about his availability, only to be met with a dial tone.

Nothing is for sure, but Castellanos, by conservative estimates, could be a 20-homer and 85-RBI guy in the middle of the Tigers lineup for years to come.

And there's a growing trend throughout Major League Baseball for team executives to roll the dice on such projections and lock up stars-in-training with long-term contracts that, while a risk at the beginning, have the potential to prove extremely club-friendly in the end.

Mutual benefits

Tigers fans have been reading about Castellanos for years, but most hadn't seen him until last week. So any talk of an extension, on the surface, might seem like a stretch – and not because he's running the bases with all the grace of a drunk in ice skates.

But, if you about it, it makes some sense.

Other teams have done it, too.

Just last week, the Rays and Chris Archer agreed to a six-year, $25.5 million contract. The right-hander had made just 27 starts in the major leagues.

In February 2012, the Royals and Salvador Perez shook hands on a five-year, $7 million deal. The electric young catcher had played just 39 games in the major leagues.

The best example – and the one most comparable to the Castellanos situation, in that they both play third base – is the Rays' Evan Longoria, who, a mere six days into his major-league career, signed a six-year, $17.5 million contract that might go down as one of biggest steals in the game's history, slightly behind that time the Red Sox sold a guy named Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000.

There are benefits to these shot-gun deals, for both the teams and players.

In the Tigers' case, Castellanos isn't arbitration-eligible until 2017, meaning the Tigers are free to pay him what they wish – just a tick above the major-league minimum, $500,000 this year, if they so choose. But from 2017-19, Castellanos will be arbitration-eligible, and that's when things could get expensive for the Tigers – particularly if he's as good as they think – ahead of free-agency in 2020.

So here's the idea of such an extension: to overpay significantly now with the hopes of getting a significant bargain by the end, particularly if the deal buys out one or two free-agent years.

But why would a player like Castellanos entertain that idea, knowing by the end of that deal, he could be earning millions below his market value? Simple. Financial security.

There are no guarantees in athletics – but contracts in baseball are, in fact, guaranteed, preventing cold-blooded team execs from stopping payments because of injuries, etc. Castellanos, a 22-year-old father of one, received a hefty $3.45 million signing bonus back in 2010, enough to pass up a scholarship at the University of Miami, but the Tigers don't owe him much more than that. Castellanos, at least, would be intrigued by an extension worth, say, $20 million or more.

If not, perhaps Castellanos should look into the sad case of Ricky Romero. On April 9, 2009, Romero and the Tigers' Rick Porcello made their major-league debuts against each other. Romero won, a nice start to a promising career. The next summer, the Blue Jays gave the lefty a five-year, $30.1 million contract. And he was good the next year, too. But he has been a Dontrelle Willis-like disaster ever since.

Today, he's the richest Buffalo Bison. Had he not signed that contract, there's no way Romero would've seen anything close to that money.

So, it doesn't always work out from a team perspective. It's a calculated risk.

But what if the Tigers signed Porcello the same time the Blue Jays signed Romero, and for similar money? It might've proven a bargain, assuming it went from 2012-16, buying out a free-agent year. The right-hander will have made $16.7 million from 2012-14, including $8.5 million this season – and that salary is very likely to surpass $10 million in 2015 and $12 million in 2016.

Money matters

You'll notice that a lot of the teams taking these kind of risks on long-term contracts for prospects are from middle or small markets. Like a single father working two jobs, they're always stressing about money.

Teams like the Rays and Royals aren't big players in the free-agent market. They're exponentially more likely to lose their own big free agents to other teams with far deeper pockets. (David Price and James Shields, for instance, will be playing elsewhere in 2015.) So anyway they can save, they'll do it. And these types of deals can help them immensely.

The Tigers, meanwhile, are a middle-market team that spends like their big-market brothers – the last two offseasons, committing nearly half-a-billion deals to keeping Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera for, potentially, the rest of their Hall of Fame careers.

But there's no telling how long that gravy train will stay on the tracks.

Mike Ilitch has long been willing to swim in red ink for his beloved Tigers, with the hopes of securing that long-elusive World Series ring. But he's 84, in less-than-perfect health, and won't own the team forever, and nobody can reasonably expect the next owner to be buying into a not-for-profit entity.

Already this past offseason, there were signs of reigning in the spending. Despite pocketing some $25 million in additional revenue, thanks to the new national TV contracts, the Tigers traded Doug Fister in what looks more and more like a salary dump, and pawned off Prince Fielder on the Rangers in a deal that – even after factoring in Ian Kinsler's remaining salary – is worth a net savings of $76 million.

The Opening Day payroll still was more than $150 million, fourth-highest in baseball. It was up slightly from 2013 – though certainly not the full amount of their national TV windfall.

Sure, some flexibility is coming next offseason. I'd be surprised if Scherzer or Hunter return; Martinez could be back. But next year, Verlander's salary spikes to $28 million, and in 2016, Cabrera will start drawing on his new deal – $28 million for two years, $30 million for four, and $32 million for two.

Those deals will make for some tough decisions, first with Scherzer, and then Jackson and Porcello. Those, incidentally, are three guys the Tigers thought the world of when they were acquired – and might've been best-served to have locked up years ago.

So don't be surprised if the Tigers take a different approach with Castellanos and pay him a bit more handsomely now, so later they can save much more – money, and headaches.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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