The Phillies continued to fill their outfield holes on Friday, signing Nick Castellanos to a five-year deal worth $100 million. Despite the decline in league-wide offense, the ex-Red had his best offensive season in 2021, hitting .309/.362/.576 with 34 home runs for a 140 wRC+ and 4.2 WAR. All those numbers were new career highs, and this was his first season in which he climbed over the three-WAR barrier.
It’s an enormous challenge to resist comparing the recent arcs of Phillies history to that of the Braves. Both teams saw a need to do complete rebuilds in the mid-2010s, aggressively accumulated prospects, and tried to time their big pushes into contention near particular landmarks. For the Braves, it was the new stadium, and for Philadelphia, a massive new television deal with Comcast Sportsnet worth $2.5 billion and company equity. Atlanta’s master plan unfolded just as envisioned: four consecutive division titles, culminating in the team’s first World Series championship since 1995. The Phillies, on the other hand, only just now put together their first winning season in a decade, and by the smallest possible margin.
The reasons for Philadephia’s lackluster rebuild results are myriad, but to simplify it, it comes down to two things. First: the inability, for whatever reason, to develop minor leaguers, both in-house and from trades, at the rate that the Braves were able to. Second: the willingness to make up for this gap, either with cleverness or financial resources. That’s not to say the Phillies were lackadaisical in their moves or unwilling to sign big free agents; they brought in Bryce Harper to a monster contract, landed Zack Wheeler, and regularly made trades to acquire talent like J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura. But not all these moves worked out as well as they hoped, and there were too many holes on the roster that they tried to fill with wishful thinking.
After a 28–32 finish in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the Phillies made the decision to reassemble, more or less, that same 28–32 roster for 2021 and expect different results. The rotation was so thin to start the year that Matt Moore was the fourth starter by intention rather than some perverse owner wager or attempt at high-concept art. Despite an MVP season from Harper and a Cy Young runner-up campaign from Wheeler, they still only managed 82 wins.
To do nothing this offseason might have been fatal to the Phillies’ hopes of ever becoming a contender with this core. In-house options in left field, center field, and designated hitter all looked around replacement level or possibly worse. But this time, they didn’t just put the band back together for one more album. The biggest moves this offseason were the signings of Kyle Schwarber earlier in the week and now Castellanos, both players at positions at which the Phillies were dreadfully thin. Adding Castellanos also results in the franchise doing something important it had never done before: eclipsing the luxury tax threshold. Yes, there’s a penalty for going over, but the penalty is smaller than the de facto penalty of spending $210 million to have another 82–80 team.
This is not the perfect baseball move. The most glaring problem is that both Schwarber and Castellanos are best utilized as designated hitters, so one of them will always be in the field when both are in the lineup. And when Rhys Hoskins is at DH or has a full day off, both will have to use their gloves — Schwarber at a position with which he doesn’t have a great deal of experience. Castellanos was awful in right field by DRS (-19 runs), UZR (-13 runs), and Statcast (-23 outs) when first moved there full time by the Tigers in 2018. He’s improved since, but he’s still below average and far more likely to decline than improve out there as he ages. There’s a notable difference in his five-year projection in left field compared to designated hitter.
ZiPS Projection – Nicholas Castellanos (LF)
ZiPS Projection – Nicholas Castellanos (DH)
In left, ZiPS evaluated Castellanos as worth $53.4 million over the next five years; at designated hitter, that would jump to $71.3 million. That’s nearly a fifth of the total value of his $100 million contract.
The Phillies don’t have a lot of defense to sacrifice; by Statcast’s reckoning, they ranked 24th in Outs Above Average in 2021. UZR and DRS are no more merciful, ranking last year’s edition at 20th and dead last, respectively. Aaron Nola may have a vested interest in becoming more of a groundball pitcher again (or maybe not, given the equally rough current defensive state of the Phillies’ infield).
You may think I’m pessimistic about this contract, as I am on the Kris Bryant deal with the Rockies (which Jay Jaffe wrote up for us). But for a team like the Phillies, the need to add good players is far more urgent than the need to add good players in a financially efficient manner. When I projected Seiya Suzuki for each team last month, he added more playoff probability to Philadelphia than any other team in baseball, thanks to the combination of hovering the low-80s in wins and a massive void in the outfield. Where Bryant simply changes the Rockies’ degree of lousiness, Castellanos nudges the Phillies meaningfully closer to a playoff race that has an extra slot this year. Suzuki would have been preferable, but the Phillies can’t get him at this point or myriad other players who are better fits. They are working with the subset of players who are free and willing to play for them or who a team will trade to them. In that environment, Castellanos was likely one of the best choices available.
In pure performance terms, did the Phillies overpay for Castellanos? Absolutely. But not closing the deal would have been far worse.