While the Cubs and Nicholas Castellanos have reportedly expressed mutual interest in a reunion, it’s hard to imagine both parties agreeing to a contract unless Theo Epstein frees up payroll. The current payroll for 2020 projects to between $210-215 million after arbitration, benefits, and 40-man minor league costs, leaving little room for splashy free-agent deals.
Castellanos may be worth as much as $24 million annually because he’s averaged 2.9 WAR over the last two seasons and teams have paid roughly $8 million per win over the last couple of years. FanGraphs, though, believes the outfielder will sign a four-year, $56 million deal, which seems very reasonable given his late-season surge.
But even at a team-friendly $14 million AAV, essentially a continuation of Ben Zobrist’s contract, the Cubs’ estimated payroll jumps to as much as $240 million. That puts them well into the second tier of competitive balance tax penalties that begins at $228 million and leaves them dangerously close to the upper limit of $248 million. Because it would be their second year over the CBT, the Cubs would pay a 30% penalty on the first $20 over overages with an extra 12% surcharge on the next $20 million.
My Cubs Insider colleague Ryan Thomure recently highlighted Big Stick Nick’s shortcomings, some of which unfortunately difficult to ignore even without payroll concerns. Once you factor in Tom Ricketts’ noted aversion to paying out more in “dead-weight loss” via CBT penalties, however, you have to assume the Cubs are going to evaluate Castellanos’ value with a microscope.
Are the Cubs willing to bet on him producing more value than his 2020 Steamer projection of 2 fWAR? Are they confident that his hyper-aggressive approach will still yield over 25 homers annually as he ages? Can he maintain a borderline .300 batting average consistently? These are all fair questions.
Issues with depth, defense, on-base skills, and the bullpen plagued the Cubs in 2019, so Epstein and the front office are spending every ounce of energy trying to ensure 2019 never happens again. They’ve already made several moves to reshape organizational personnel, but a focus on frugality may mean player solutions are more likely to come via uncomfortable trades than big free agent signings.
Bringing Castellanos back might still be part of the solution, but only it’s hard to imagine Ricketts signing off on it unless other heavy contracts — like Tyler Chatwood’s $13M AAV and Jason Heyward’s $23M — are moved to some extent. Without other significant moves, even getting Castellanos on a relatively reasonable deal would give the Cubs another very high payroll and would not leave room to address other very real needs.