Cubs free agent focus: Nicholas Castellanos

Cubs free agent focus: Nicholas Castellanos

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

It took two months for Nicholas Castellanos to endear himself to the city of Chicago and make his case to be a Cub in 2020 and beyond.

Castellanos became an integral piece of the Cubs offense after they acquired him from the Detroit Tigers on July 31. In 51 games, he posted a stellar .321/.356/.646 (1.002 OPS) slash line, hitting 16 home runs and 21 doubles.

Despite playing a third of a season with the Cubs, Castellanos finished seventh on the team in homers and fifth in doubles. His 2.0 WAR (per FanGraphs’ metric) was No. 6 among Cubs position players, ahead of:

-Jason Heyward (1.9 WAR in 147 games)
-David Bote (1.5 WAR in 127 games)
-Addison Russell (0.5 WAR in 82 games)
-Albert Almora Jr. (-0.7 WAR in 130 games)

Joining the Cubs rejuvenated Castellanos, as he got to play in an MLB postseason race for the first time since 2014 — his rookie campaign. Cubs president Theo Epstein had high regards for the 27-year-old at his end-of-season press conference.

"Man, I love everything about Nick Castellanos," Epstein said in September. "What a job he did coming in. I don't think you can ask more of an in-season trade acquisition than what he did. The production, the consistency, the dynamic at-bats that he had and then the way he went about it — just with a lot of passion, a lot of professionalism, a lot of hard work, a team-oriented approach. Really became invested in the Cubs and his teammates in a short period of time.”

What about Castellanos returning to the Cubs in 2020?

"Love the way he plays the game and would love to have him back. It's obviously a more complicated issue than just we do love to have the guy back,” Epstein said. “He's worked long and hard to get to free agency. He had an unbelievable year — especially his time with the Cubs — and he deserves the right to take that into the free-agent market.

“He knows that we'd love to have him back, but he also knows that it's not as simple as that."

Re-signing Castellanos would require the Cubs to either a) trade Kyle Schwarber, thus opening up a corner outfield spot, or b) move Jason Heyward to center field full-time.

Schwarber — .280/.366/.631 (.997 OPS), 20 home runs — had a tremendous final two months of 2019 himself. Whether that carries over in 2020 is to be determined, but something clicked mentally for him in the second half of 2019. Now is not the time to trade Schwarber.

Therefore, re-signing Castellanos would require moving Heyward to center field full-time, allowing the former to play right. This would give the Cubs an under average defensive outfield, as each player’s Defensive Runs Saved from 2019 demonstrates.

Note: DRS measures how many runs a player saved or cost his team defensively compared to the average player at that position.

-Schwarber posted a -1 DRS in left
-Heyward posted a -4 DRS in center
-Castellanos posted a -4 DRS in right (with the Cubs)

Schwarber has made strides as an outfielder since 2017 (-9 DRS in left) and even graded positively in 2018 (2 DRS). The same can be said about Castellanos (-19 DRS in 2018), who has only played outfield full-time since 2018. Like Schwarber, there’s room for improvement as Castellanos gains outfield experience.

Castellanos' defensive was maligned when he joined the Cubs, but he held his own balancing Wrigley Field's tough winds, tight foul lines and the glaring sun in right field. Heyward, on the other hand, is a five-time Gold Glove Award winner in right. His defense out there is a huge reason why the Cubs signed him to an eight-year contract ahead of the 2016 season.

Could the Cubs open next season with a Schwarber-Heyward-Castellanos defensive alignment? Yes, as they could still prioritize defense late in games by moving Heyward to right and subbing in a good defensive center fielder. This would leave Schwarber or Castellanos to play left, but one would have to be subbed out of the game.

However, the Cubs may be unwilling to pull one of their better hitters in a key late-game spot, whether it’s Schwarber or Castellanos. 

Defense aside, if the Cubs wish to re-sign Castellanos, they’ll have to find a way to fit him onto their payroll. The Cubs’ budget issues have been discussed ad nauseam, but the bottom line is things will be tight again this winter.

Castellanos’ bat would look tremendous in the Cubs lineup moving forward. His defense should grow marginally, at the least, as he gains more outfield experience. The only question left is whether the Cubs can fit his salary onto their payroll or not.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto

Cubs sign oft-injured reliever Brandon Morrow to minor-league deal


Cubs sign oft-injured reliever Brandon Morrow to minor-league deal

Brandon Morrow hasn’t pitched in a big-league game since July 2018, but he’ll get a shot at making a comeback next season.

Morrow is set to sign a minor league deal with the Cubs, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. It’s worth $1 million if he makes the Cubs' roster and could reach $2.25 million if Morrow makes 65 big-league appearances. 

Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 15, 2018, missing the second half of that season with right biceps inflammation. He underwent a debridement procedure on his right elbow last offseason, which was supposed to keep him out for the first month of the 2019 season. But Morrow suffered several setbacks and never pitched in 2019. 

Morrow’s agent, Joel Wolfe, told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times last month that the right-hander feels a sense of loyalty to the Cubs after they stuck by him through thick and thin. He said Morrow was open to a minor league deal.

When he last pitched, Morrow was one of the most dominant closers in baseball. He posted a 1.47 ERA in 35 games in 2018, converting 22 of 24 save tries. He provided the Cubs with a power arm in the back of the bullpen, striking out 31 batters in 30 2/3 innings compared to nine walks.

For the Cubs, Morrow is a low-risk addition with high-reward potential. He told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that his arm feels great. If he’s healthy, he could be a major contributor to the Cubs' bullpen.

This time, the Cubs won’t place such high expectations on the 35-year-old. They expect closer Craig Kimbrel to bounce back in 2020 with a normal offseason ahead of him. Kimbrel signed a three-year, $43 million deal with the Cubs last June and struggled mightily, posting a 6.53 ERA in 23 games.

If healthy, Morrow could prove to be a lethal weapon in front of Kimbrel. If he can’t stay healthy, it’s not like the Cubs are investing a lot of money in him, as they did two offseasons ago when Morrow signed a two-year, $21 million deal.

Simply put: if Morrow pans out, great. If he can’t stay healthy, the Cubs can move on without losing a large investment.