It did not take long for Nicholas Castellanos to endear himself to Cubs fans.
In fact, you might say it happened immediately, on Opening Day...
The marriage between the Cubs and Castellanos could not have gone any better. Neither side could dream up a more perfect pairing over the final two months of this 2019 season.
Castellanos instantly became a huge part of the Cubs offense and his passion and energy was palpable. He said he was stoked to be in the MLB playoff race for the first time since 2014 (his rookie season) and his actions spoke even louder than his words.
Case in point:
As Joe Maddon famously said, Castellanos reminded the Cubs "what hunger looks like."
That particular quote maybe rubbed some of the players in that clubhouse the wrong way, but Castellanos certainly did not. He quietly became a leader and earned the respect of his new teammates in a very short time.
So what's next for the Castellanos-Cubs pairing?
He's a free agent right after this fall's World Series ends, but Cubs fans have already been petitioning for months to re-sign him.
Don't worry, they're not alone in that desire.
"Man, I love everything about Nick Castellanos," Theo Epstein said in his end-of-season presser Monday afternoon. "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.
"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. 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."
How good was Castellanos' run with the Cubs?
In only 51 games (a third of a season), he racked up 2.0 WAR by FanGraphs' metric, ranking sixth among all Cubs position players in 2019. That's more than Jason Heyward (1.9 WAR in 147 games), David Bote (1.5 WAR in 127 games), Victor Caratini (1.4 WAR in 95 games), Addison Russell (0.5 WAR in 82 games) and Albert Almora Jr. (-0.7 WAR in 130 games).
Castellanos hit more home runs (16) with the Cubs than he did with the Tigers (11) in half the games. But he still rated negatively as a defender in Chicago and it's hard to expect he'll hit .321 with a 1.002 OPS forever when he has never hit over .300 or posted an OPS over .863 in a full season in his career.
It would be unfair to extrapolate Castellanos' production from the two months in a Cubs uniform over a full season year over year. But he doesn't turn 28 until March, this was only his second season playing the outfield full time and right field at Wrigley is not exactly an easy place to get used to quickly with the wind, sun and having the stands right on top of the foul line.
Castellanos also provides an impact that can go far beyond the back of his baseball card or what his Baseball Reference page says.
The Cubs are prioritizing a focus on coming together more as a team and avoiding the "winner's trap" — common themes throughout Epstein's end-of-season presser. For an organization trying to forge a new identity and winning culture, what better guy to help lead that charge than one who thrives on pressure and is extremely hungry and driven to win?
"I love expectations and pressure to win," Castellanos said last weekend in St. Louis when asked what he learned about himself in his two months with the Cubs. "I loved being in the pennant race. I loved it. And I think being in that environment brought the best out of me."
After toiling away in Detroit with an organization that has lost 310 games over the last three seasons, Castellanos made no secret about how grateful he was to be in the thick of a postseason race with the Cubs until the final week or so of the season.
"I mean, I haven't played baseball like this since I was in high school, really," he said. "So I don't know what I was doing. I was just being myself and everything that you guys saw was just genuine, raw emotion because of how much I wanted to win and I wanted to be in October baseball. I wanted to win, man. I won a lot as an amateur baseball player. I was on a lot of cool teams that did a lot of cool things — won a gold medal in Venezuela, won state championships in high school, summer ball tournaments.
"I haven't been able to do that at all as a professional. None of my minor -league teams finished out too good. I was able to celebrate a Division Series in '14, but I was so young and the game was so fast, I didn't really get to appreciate it yet. To be back in it this year, I enjoyed the shit out of it."
When asked if he would like to return to the Cubs next season, Castellanos turned to the reporter and in his direct — but not standoffish — manner, asked, "What do you think?" That provided a stronger, clearer answer than anything else he could've said.
But he did elaborate on how it felt with the way Cubdom embraced him and welcomed him in so quickly.
"I love the fans here," he said. "Being able to walk to and from the park, just seeing how much they genuinely love the Cubs. Winning by 10 or losing by 10 — they're in it and they're focused and they love their Cubs and I think that it's awesome. It's great. It's pure and it was a lot of fun to be a part of it."
"Pure" is maybe the best word to describe Castellanos' time as a Cub in 2019 — from the fan's love for him to his passion and energy on the field and motivation to win.
He plans on heading into free agency with an open mind and will particularly pay attention to how Epstein maneuvers the Cubs' offseason and how much change is truly coming to the North Side of Chicago.
Ultimately, it might be a tough fit for the Cubs given Kyle Schwarber's hold on one of the corner outfield spots after a breakout campaign. Would they want to move Jason Heyward to center field full-time? He just turned 30 and was a five-time Gold Glover in right field.
Castellanos is also repped by Scott Boras, so don't expect any sort of discount to return to the Cubs — especially since his final two months should make him an appealing target for just about any team on the open market.
There is a lot to be decided if the Castellanos-Cubs pairing is going to continue. But one thing's for sure, he sees the potential of this club:
"[They] have a group of unbelievably talented kids here," he said. "And it was a lot of fun to be their teammate and play with them and see what makes them tick."
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