Published June 15, 2019
No sport is more romanticized than baseball.
Countless books have chronicled the human drama surrounding the game. Poets have taken their swipe at capturing the essence of what happens on and off the diamond. Long essays have been written, aggrandizing men until they are practically mythical in nature.
But baseball, anymore, has turned into a numbers cruncher’s dream. There’s little romance in BABIP, WAR and OPS+. How can you turn exit velocity into something poetic?
Baseball also requires numbers crunching when it comes to salaries, contracts and bonuses. Lawyers, accountants and agents get involved. Where’s the romance in that?
Baseball is a business!
This is true, but it’s unlike any other business. Traditional models often don’t apply. And many team owners, had they run a more traditional business the way they ran their baseball clubs, would have been on the street, homeless.
This may surprise you, but baseball owners throughout the years haven’t necessarily been smart businessmen.
There’s still romance in baseball, but you have to dig deeper than ever to find it. How many different ways can you wax poetic about a strikeout or a home run—the two things that seem to dominate the game anymore.
The Castellanos problem
Nicholas Castellanos seems to be searching for romance where there is none. He’d like there to be a commitment. Some loyalty. But he’s become nothing more than collateral damage in a painful rebuilding project that the Tigers are undergoing.
Castellanos is 27 years old and will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. He’s in the prime of his career, as they say. Players of his age before him have inked contracts that require fleets of Brinks trucks for the delivery of funds.
But this is a case of bad timing, in several ways.
First, if the Manny Machados and Bryce Harpers of the world have to wait until the dawn of spring training in order to sign with new teams, what does that tell you?
Second, Castellanos is a Tiger in his prime at arguably the worst time that you can be a Tiger in his prime.
The Tigers are not in the beginning of their rebuild, yet they’re neither toward the end of it, by all accounts. They’re somewhere in between.
Being somewhere in between is the worst place to be in professional sports—for players, teams and fans.
Being somewhere in between is the netherworld. Better to be piss poor than to be in the middle. At least when you’re at the bottom, the rules give you the means to get better quicker.
Welcome my friends, to the rebuild that never ends
So here the Tigers are, in the middle of a rebuild that the beginning of which seems eons ago and the ending isn’t yet visible on the horizon. You want to drink the Kool-Aid and believe that 2021 is the year the Tigers contend, as if they’ve put in their reservation for such?
Do you see signs that in the season after next, the Tigers will be fielding a team that will scare the pants off the Yankees, Astros and Red Sox?
Back to Castellanos. He’s frustrated, disillusioned and frankly, a little desperate. He’s looking free agency in the face and instead of chomping at the bit to see what he could earn on the open market, Castellanos is shamelessly looking for a contract extension from the Tigers.
“Obviously, I’ve been open to any extension talks,” Castellanos told Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press on Friday. “But that hasn’t happened. They said that I turned down one in the offseason of ’17, but that wasn’t true. I’ve also had conversations with (GM) Al (Avila) with him saying it doesn’t really make sense where we are right now in this process of a rebuild to be handing out extensions. This was back at the end of last season.”
Castellanos has often romanticized being a Tiger, which in a way is refreshing. The game is filled with players who treat their first big league club as merely a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
But now, Castellanos is caught in the middle—in the middle of a rebuild that sometimes paralyzes teams when it comes to making decisions on young veterans.
This is the business side of the game, and there’s nothing poetic about it.
Trade value? Not much
The Tigers, if they had their druthers, would trade Castellanos before the July 31 deadline. That would rid them of the dilemma. Castellanos would be someone else’s headache, and the Tigers would have some more young pieces for their interminable rebuild.
The trouble is finding a trade partner. Baseball is a business, but you can’t do business with yourself. The Tigers are going to be hard-pressed, I believe, to find a willing taker who’ll give up much for Castellanos, who is going to be a free agent at the end of the season, and who isn’t exactly having a bang-up year. Rental players are only attractive if the belief is that their services are desperately needed for a stretch run.
Can you honestly say that Nicholas Castellanos can be a team’s “missing piece” this August-September?
OK, so if the Tigers don’t deal Castellanos this season, will they let him walk? Very possibly. He says he’d love to remain a Tiger. Again, noble. But the truth is, the Tigers appear to have no real confidence in when they’ll contend again. The organization, despite the drafting of Riley Greene earlier this month, is still woefully short on position player depth.
Castellanos has been jerked around as a Tiger—on the field. He’s been making his way around the diamond, trying on different gloves–none of which has been made of gold. On Friday with Monarrez, he discussed a proposed move to first base and the notion that Castellanos nixed the idea.
“I told them, ‘If you offer me an extension, you show me that I am a piece of the future, I’ll play first. I’ll even throw bullpens for you, you know?’ ” Castellanos said. “But give me that security.”
Everyone would love guaranteed job security. I would, you would. And I can certainly understand Castellanos wanting the Tigers to reward him with a long-term commitment. It would be nice to see someone locked into the Old English D for years, who isn’t making $30 million a year.
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
But this is business, remember? And the Tigers have too many variables that are unknown, many of which are of their own making.
Castellanos isn’t Miggy Cabrera. He isn’t Al Kaline. He isn’t Alan Trammell or Louis Whitaker. He’s a decent ballplayer who came along at a time in franchise history that hasn’t been favorable to him. He came along when the Tigers found themselves between eras of success. Worse, he enters his prime years with the team still in flux.
Any team can start a rebuild. That’s the easy part. It’s easy to declare that the purse strings are closing and that anyone who has any value whatsoever, who’s making big bucks, is going to be jettisoned.
But knowing how and when to stop rebuilding is much harder. Drafting, developing and molding the pieces of the future to the point when it’s time to break out the wallet again…that’s the part that can vex organizations.
The Tigers are nowhere near, in my opinion, the end of this darkness. I think believing that 2021 is the target is extremely optimistic at best, and downright foolish at worst.
This is the point in time of the rebuild where decisions on players like Castellanos—and to a lesser extent, Matt Boyd and Shane Greene—are pivotal, yet are made on gut.
Speaking of gut, I would be surprised if Nicholas Castellanos plays another game for the Tigers after the final out of this season is in the books. I don’t think he’ll be traded by July 31. But he’s gone.
It’s not romantic, it’s not poetic. You can call him petulant. You can call him entitled. You can call the Tigers clueless and without a real plan. Take your pick.
Castellanos is a decent, not great player who doesn’t appear to figure in the Tigers’ plans for the future. You want hard facts? Here are some. The future success of this rebuild doesn’t hinge on whether Castellanos plays for the Tigers beyond this season, or not. He’s not a must-have piece. He’s a nice-to-have piece, but that’s it.
The interesting thing will be to see what kind of a deal he gets from his next employer—and how long it will take him to find another job.
Nicholas Castellanos had bad timing as a Tiger. He joined the team at the tail end of their dominance of the Central Division. Now he’s entering his prime when the team doesn’t really know what the hell they want to do next in their rebuild.
It’s easy to start rebuilding. As the Tigers, and Castellanos are finding out, it’s not nearly as easy to stop.