Detroit — It’s always quaint to see folks dressed more for snowmobile trails than for baseball filing into a ballpark on a 15-degree morning. Reappearing Saturday was a scene cut from Detroit’s baseball soul as that annual winter carnival, TigerFest, convened at Comerica Park, minus any known cases of frostbite.
One player was missing from Saturday’s party. Nick Castellanos wasn’t around to kibitz with media and fans. He had not been part of the week’s Tigers Caravan as it wended its way through Metro Detroit and the state’s various stops.
“Family commitment,” the Tigers said, and they were firm there was nothing else at work.
That’s probably the truth. A call into Castellanos, just to confirm his conflict, wasn’t successful. Nor was there any luck in reaching his agent, David Meter.
It does not erase realities specific to Castellanos and to the Tigers in 2019.
He wants to be traded as much as the Tigers want to make a sweet deal. It has nothing to do with lack of appreciation or tumbling stock or irritations with a player who is 100-percent intensity and decorum.
It’s simply a matter of timing.
The Tigers are on a construction schedule that won’t make them playoff-competitive for at least a couple of years — probably closer to five.
If they sign Castellanos to a long deal, ahead of him hitting free agency this autumn, the price will be steep. Castellanos could be on the down slope of his big-league years when the Tigers have finally built a team around him.
It’s smarter to trade him now, ideally for a solid prospect or two who can fit into the roster revamping.
But that’s not any easier now than it has been the past two years. Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, has been chatting throughout with his brethren. He has hoped another GM might offer for Castellanos a package along the lines of trade parcels Avila got for Justin Wilson and Justin Verlander, to name a pair of swaps the Tigers liked.
Castellanos’ and the Tigers’ problems, as it were, are these:
► He is headed for free agency and this season and will make $9.95 million.
►He batted .298 in 2018, with a serious .354 on-base percentage and an .854 OPS. But he was worth only a WAR (wins above replacement, for those unacquainted) of 2.9, which won’t get a lot of GMs excited.
► He is an outfielder whose defense is not a selling point. During an era where everything this side of a player’s belt-buckle weight is analyzed, Castellanos hasn’t held up as well beneath the front-office microscopes.
Now for the pluses, and they’re worth considering.
He hits the bejabbers out of a baseball. Hits it hard, hits it square, hits smart. He is 26 and won’t turn 27 until March.
It has been said here before, and it will be said again today: Come June and July, a lot of GMs who snorted at Castellanos will wonder what they were thinking last winter when they could have had a hitter so lusty at an affordable price.
A conviction here is that he’s going to have a whopping first half of the season. And if he does, Avila – and Castellanos, given his playoff appetite – will do fine because a mid-season trade becomes doable.
But let’s say he has numbers no better than last year’s. Or maybe he turns an ankle and misses a month.
Now the Tigers are in the soup. And so, for that matter, might be Castellanos, at least compared with most past free agents who have swung a bat as sweetly as Castellanos.
The Tigers would be looking at one of three options, only two of which are practical: They could decide to make him a multi-year offer, which doesn’t seem today a rational thought; they can allow him to hit free agency minus a qualifying offer that will likely approach $20 million; or they can make that potentially outlandish one-year qualifying offer and probably count on paying exorbitantly for next year’s right-fielder.
If another team bites and signs him to a heavy deal, after the Tigers have said yes to the qualifying offer, they would get a draft pick, although likely nothing on a par that teams once got for losing celebrity free agents.
Now you understand why the Tigers want to make a deal — immediately.
That the other two principals here, Castellanos and Meter, also want a trade now rather than at mid-season, is appreciated. No one likes changing clubhouse addresses in July.
Castellanos and Meter also understand that if Castellanos begins the new season with a new club, and hits as Castellanos is likely to do, there is a reasonable chance his new team will want to sign him to a big extension.
That would eliminate any autumn stress and anxiety in what continues to be a free-agent market as cold as Costco’s produce igloo.
But it might not go that way. In fact, it’s looking as if it won’t. It has been thought here, for a long while now, that Castellanos isn’t leaving Detroit until his contract expires and free agency perhaps lures him to another big-league town.
A trade could still happen. But two years of cold-shouldering from other clubs doesn’t appear to be shifting soon.
The out, for both parties, is probably contingent on April, May, and June.
If he hammers the ball as anticipated, Castellanos will be traded in July. And if he hits the way Castellanos at 27 should hit, he’ll not only be a hot ticket at the summer deadlines, he would be more easily retained by the Tigers with a qualifying offer in November, no matter that it will be at a plump price.
This isn’t anything that’s going to happen by way of wishes. It’s all up to a baseball market that makes even big-league baseball from five years ago look like the Ty Cobb era in terms of how much has changed in player evaluation.
So, Nick, we’ll probably see you in three weeks at Lakeland, Florida. That won’t be the way you would prefer it. That won’t be the way matters were envisioned by the Tigers.
But it’s baseball reality in January of 2019. It was 15 degrees Saturday in Detroit. The baseball market wasn’t much warmer.