Nick Castellanos reinvigorated his career following a trade to the Cubs at the 2019 deadline, though even his 16 homers and infectious hunger weren’t enough to get his new team to the postseason. Nor were they enough to convince ownership that he was worth the relative pittance of the four-year, $64 million contract the Reds offered up that following winter.
Castellanos didn’t have a great season in 2020, not entirely surprising given the myriad factors in the shortened campaign, and that’s a big part of the reason he’s back with them this season. That aforementioned deal contained opt-outs after each of the first two seasons, which means he can parlay a career year in 2021 into one more big deal heading into his age-30 season.
Could that mean coming back to the team that didn’t have room in the budget for him two years ago and that is now in a decidedly different competitive space?
“That’s a question for the Ricketts family,” Castellanos told reporters prior to Wednesday’s game.
I suppose you could parse that any number of ways, but it sure sounds as though he’s indicating he’ll be a free agent at the end of the season. With full awareness that the expiring CBA throws a good deal of uncertainty into the mix, Castellanos should easily be able to exceed both $32 million and two years if he indeed opts out. He’s also got a $20 million mutual option for 2024, though that’s really a team option and isn’t something he can consider close to a guarantee.
While security in the form of both money and time will certainly be a priority for the veteran outfielder, Castellanos comes across as a guy who prioritizes fit and feel. Whether it’s talking about coming up for air after a long time underwater shortly after joining the Cubs or proudly rocking the shirt bearing his portrait as drawn by his son, he gives off a vibe reminiscent of the early days of the Cubs’ ascension to competitiveness.
In that sense, Castellanos could be viewed as the second coming of Jon Lester, a well-respected veteran who’s willing to see past recent futility and picture what could happen. It helps that he was a part of that for a brief period and that the fans at Wrigley still love him, but you also have to believe that seeing his Reds beaten in four of their last six games against a scrappy group of nobodies wasn’t entirely soul-crushing.
“The one thing that from the outside looking in that will always remain the same is what the Cubs organization is, what Wrigley Field is, how much Cubs fans genuinely love their team. That’s what the organization is,” Castellanos explained.
“As long as that is served first, it’s impossible for it to go in the wrong direction.”
Castellanos went on to say that Wrigley might be his favorite place to play, which could be another factor in his attraction to the Cubs. More than just the adoration of the fans and the mystique of the park itself, it has been pretty clear from his time there that the specific layout of the confines has been very friendly to a hitter with his profile.
We wrote back when the trade went down that Castellanos would hit a lot more homers at Wrigley than he had in Detroit and, sure enough, he cracked 16 in just 225 plate appearances with the Cubs after hitting 11 in 439 PAs as a Tiger. He has a career .364 average with an 1.128 OPS in 165 total PAs at Wrigley, plus he’d still get the chance to hit at Great American Ball Park (1.013 OPS) and Miller Park (.869 OPS) regularly. Even if that .629 mark at Busch Stadium could use a little work, the NL Central seems to suit Castellanos well.
As for whether the Cubs are going to be willing (ownership) and able (front office) to come up with an offer that suits him, well, that’s a whole ‘nother story. It’s not as easy as saying he’d sign a deal if he truly wanted to be there, just as that wasn’t the case for the players the Cubs traded away. But with attendance flatlining for a team that claims 70% of its revenue comes from gameday activities, there might finally be some motivation to open the baseball budget back up.
Castellanos alone isn’t enough to get things done, not when the rotation needs at least one big-time addition, but meaningfully pursuing him would prove the Cubs are serious about this rebuild not lasting very long. As to the reality of words versus actions, I can’t put it any better than the Reds slugger:
“At the end of the day we’ll see how it plays out.”