Starlin Castro is a very good player. As Cubs fans, we are very lucky because he is a homegrown talent who signed a team-friendly contract extension; which makes him young, cheap, and under long-term control. I know all of these things are true because people constantly say them.
On sports radio, on team broadcasts, and around the figurative “water cooler” in offices among the vast expanses of Cubdom, one can hear those sentiments being stated as fact.
I don’t care much for accepting, at face value, that which the majority believes is true, so I wanted to dig deeper into not only the quantifiable baseball measures of Castro as a player, but also the economic value of the contract under which he plays. Is it true that Castro is a young, cheap, elite player under long-term control?
Well, certainly he is young, and certainly he has elite talent. At age 25, Castro has been in the majors for nearly five full seasons (740 games prior to 2015) and he has been named to three All-Star teams (2011, 2012, 2014). Twice he has had full-season batting averages over .300 (2010 and 2011), and has led the NL in hits in a full season (2011 with 207 hits).
He steals some bases, (in 2012 he swiped 25 bags, but only had 13 combined over the following two seasons), and his stated goal is to steal even more.
Castro has moderate power, (ten or more home runs in every year except his rookie season) and he drives in some runs. He has slashed .284/.325/.410 with an OPS of .735 for his career, and the trend line may be angled upward as he produced his highest career slugging percentage in 2014 (.438).
What does all of this mean? It means that among shortstops, Castro is a very good hitter. Setting aside 2013 (which was a very bad year for him, and far from his career trend lines), Castro routinely finishes in the top ten for hits, batting average, home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, OBP, and OPS among his positional peers.
There are flaws to Castro’s game, without question. His defense is basically replacement-level. Depending on the exact metrics one uses, there is a case to be made that he is either slightly better or slightly worse than league average at the position.
While his shortcomings are well-known amongst MLB people as well as fans, Castro certainly isn’t awful defensively. His superb offensive production more than outweighs an average defensive skill set to make him a very valuable player, particularly at the right price.
We have been told repeatedly that Castro is on a team-friendly deal, but what does that really mean? Is he an inexpensive player? Is he a bargain under his current contract? Is he even playing up to his current contract? The answer is yes… and no.
Between 2010 and 2012, Castro earned a total of $1.33 million over three seasons. Obviously, he was worth far more than that amount, and was an absolute steal for the organization, as all young stars are.
In August 2012, Castro signed a seven-year extension which bought out his four arbitration years with club options for 2020 and 2021. The results have been mixed, thus far.
In 2013 and 2014, Castro earned $5,857,142. Castro underplayed the new contract in 2013, but greatly outplayed it in 2014. This season, he gets a $1 million raise to $6.857 million, with another $1 million raise next year, and a $2 million increase in 2017. The 2018 and 2019 seasons each provide for $1 million dollar increases, making the total value of the 7-year extension $60 million. These “salary figures” level and smooth the $6 million signing bonus that was given pre-2013 to cover each year of the contract except the option years.
In today’s era of inflated salaries, Castro is the 11th most highly paid shortstop in baseball. In light of his consistent top-ten offensive performance, this seems more than fair to me, even acknowledging the rather pedestrian defensive abilities. Considering how difficult offense is to find among middle infielders today, Castro is an excellent value at his 2015 salary figure.
In order for him to remain an excellent value as the escalators built into his contract push his average salary north of $10 million between 2017 and 2019, Castro’s offensive production will have to increase. This is a player in his prime who theoretically should continue to get better offensively, but how much better can we reasonably expect?
It will be interesting to see his power totals for this season as they can confirm or invalidate an apparent trend towards increasing home run totals. The rest of his offensive game, though, seems consistent and repeatable (setting aside 2013, which appears to be an aberration), and I think it is fair to expect similar production at a minimum. If his production stays true to his trend lines without notable improvement, Castro’s contract begins to look much more like one that is simply fair rather than a deep value..
For his career, Castro has an average WARP of 2.76, but that includes the aberrant 2013 figure of zero which appears to be an outlier. If we toss that number and toss out his highest WARP year (4.4 in 2011) in the interests of data integrity, his average WARP is 3.13. That means that he is currently producing one WARP for every $2.2 million million in salary, which is a bargain when compared to league average for veterans. League-wide in 2014, the top 10 veteran shortstops (by WARP), aside from Castro, earned on average, $3.25 million per WARP.
At its apex, Castro’s contract will pay him $11 million. For the sake of comparison, there were six shortstops earning that much or more last season, and most teams would consider that to be a reasonable cost for an all-star shortstop.
From a value perspective, if Castro can bring his production back up to his 2011 and 2012 levels, where he produced 4.38 and 3.92 WARP respectively, his contract will continue to be an excellent value throughout its conclusion.
So why would the Cubs trade an affordable all-star who produces consistent offense and plays passable defense? Addison Russell.
National scouts and rating agencies have ranked Russell near the very top of virtually every list of top prospects that has been published in the past 12 months. Some would argue that his defense is better than Castro’s today, and he has the tools to quickly become every bit the offensive player that Castro is—possibly better. And the best part? Russell will be under control for six years and will likely cost about 10 percent of what the Cubs will pay Castro over the next five years.
No prospect is a sure thing, but Russell appears to be special. It is inevitable that, barring injury, Russell will be playing shortstop at Wrigley Field by next season at the latest.
What does that mean for Castro? A positional switch is a possibility, but the smart move is to trade him. There are not enough open positions in the infield, and too many prospects that need to see the field.
You might say, “Just trade one of the prospects,” and you could do that, certainly, but it would be a tremendous mistake. Why? Cost, control, potential, and trade value.
Setting aside Bryant and Russell, (who would each bring a ton in trade value), none of the other prospects would bring organization-altering talent. Theo could move a player just to clear a logjam, but doing that would bring a moderate return at the expense of a player with a tremendous ceiling who might wind up lighting up Sportscenter for the next 15 years. The GM who acquires the future superstar would get the added bonus of watching him flourish for less than $1 million per year for several years, and having that player under control for six seasons. From the Cubs perspective, why would you trade away that opportunity? Keep it for yourself.
Yes, it’s a risk to trade a proven all-star in order to let a rookie play, but in this case we have a pretty clear picture of what Castro is. He is a known quantity whose cost is rising and may not be a bargain for long. There is little chance that he will turn into an MVP-caliber player as it likely would have happened already. Yes, he will hit nearly .300. Yes, he will hit 15 home runs. But Addison Russell has a reasonable probability of doing those same things while playing strong defense and costing only a fraction of what they would pay Castro. Those dollars could be reallocated to free agent needs, particularly pitching.
By holding onto the prospects and developing them, you give yourself the opportunity to shoot for the holy grail of baseball rosters—a team comprised of inexpensive home-grown talent that hits their prime collectively. Since the core would cost relatively little, the GM could then supplement where needed in veteran free agents as he would have a ton of available cash.
Lost in the discussion of should they or shouldn’t they trade Castro is the value he would bring in trade. The guy is a legitimate all-star shortstop who would make almost any team better. Not only would an acquiring team get Castro and his stellar offense, they would be getting a contract that, for the next two years at least, has excess value, and never gets to a level where it seems unreasonable.
I will let others speculate as to what type of value the Cubs could net in trade, but it is certain that they can expect a piece or pieces that should make them better. A shortstop-needy team would likely be thrilled to add Castro’s bat to the heart of their order, and the financial cost is reasonable enough so as not to dissuade a potential suitor.
If the Cubs system was devoid of shortstop talent, trading Castro would be a ridiculous idea that would never happen, but the reality is that Castro likely has more value to another team than to the Cubs. The prudent business decision to be made is to move Castro in exchange for a player or players who will make the club better.
If the Cubs decided to shop Castro, there would likely be an active market for the shortstop, especially if traded to a contender at the deadline (which would mean the Cubs are not contenders). If the Cubs are indeed contenders at the trade deadline, Castro should be moved in the offseason and Russell should be allowed to be the shortstop of the future.
While it would be nice to hold onto everyone to be sure the team doesn’t miss out on any production, the reality is that in order to find out whether the prospects can play, they need to play every day in the majors. There are only a few positions available that are not locked down, and too many players to fill them. If the Cubs delay too long in trading Castro, they risk trying to move an $11 million player in decline instead of a $7 million player in his prime. No one has ever accused the Epstein/Hoyer regime of being dumb or scared, so I would expect to see this deal happen at some point. It makes too much sense to pass it up.