Armed with a fastball that can flirt with triple-digit velocity and a perfectly tunneled changeup that shaves off nearly a full 10 mph, Luis Castillo has emerged as one of the more intimidating pitchers in Major League Baseball of late. His 2020 season was quite possibly his best, too, as he posted career-best marks in ERA+ (148), FIP (2.65), HR/9 (0.6), K/9 (11.4), and K/BB (3.71), in the process helping front a stellar rotation that led the Cincinnati Reds back to the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Not a bad platform on which to enter the arbitration years of his contract, eh?
With over three years of service time under his belt making roughly league minimum, Castillo stands to get a substantial raise for the 2021 season whether he and the Reds sign an extension or not. The gang at MLB Trade Rumors has used their varying models (given the odd, abbreviated nature of the 2020 season) to project he’ll earn between $3.0 million and $5.8 million next year, and when a player of his caliber begins to command salaries of that type, it’s inevitable that potential contract extensions will at least begin to be considered by both sides.
Projecting those kinds of deals involves a whopping number of variables, of course. Age, injury history, and pitch mix all factor in, as do more nebulous concepts like body type, delivery, ‘face of the franchise’ factor, and more. Those, of course, pair with the actual production on the field, as that’s the lone driver for what their arbitration-year salaries would be if no extension was on the table at all.
Why the Reds would want to extend Castillo
100 pitchers have thrown at least 160 IP since the start of the 2019 season, and if you trust FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement, Castillo (6.4 fWAR) has been the 11th most valuable of them in that time. He sits just behind Zack Wheeler (6.6 fWAR), whom the Reds courted heavily in free agency last year, and ahead of 2020 teammates Sonny Gray (6.0 fWAR) and Trevor Bauer (5.8 fWAR).
His 3.30 xFIP in that time ranks 8th.
Per Statcast, Castillo ranked among the elite in all baseball in many vital categories again this season, specifically average velocity (96th percentile), exit velocity yielded (87th percentile), xERA (85th percentile), and whiff % (83rd percentile). And with Luis, the Reds know that’s no fluke, as his repertoire is just about as straightforward as you could get - a fastball/changeup mix that looks like it’s the exact same pitch until the very end.
I mean, come on...
If he makes the top-end arbitration salary of $5.8 million in 2021, that becomes the benchmark on which his 2022 and 2023 salaries will be built. A full 2021 season as good as his 2020 mark could send those salaries on a rocket, and while the Reds would certainly appreciate performance good enough to cause that rise, it builds in an air of uncertainty that many front offices hate when doing their projections and models. Committing to Castillo now would level that, and could potentially allow the Reds to buy-out some would-be free agent years at relatively cheap rates, too.
Why Castillo might want an extension from the Reds
Guaranteed millions are guaranteed millions, of course, and while Castillo has become one of the more recognizable faces of the Reds of late, he’s still only been earning roughly the league-minimum $555,000 since 2018 - with that amount pro-rated in the shortened 2020 season. That would be one thing if Castillo had been a former 1st round pick with a $4-5 million signing bonus already banked away in a savings account, but he instead signed for a song with the San Francisco Giants all the way back in 2012 as a 19 year old free agent out of the Dominican Republic.
(He got less than Keury Mella did from the Giants in that signing window, for reference.)
He has since been a reliever-turned-starter and been traded from San Francisco to Miami, from Miami to San Diego, from San Diego back to Miami, and from Miami to the Reds. Despite his obvious arm talent, he never once cracked a Top 100 overall prospect list, and that long journey has brought him to the cusp of his 28th birthday, which he’ll reach in early December.
He could certainly roll the dice and continue to bet on himself, continue to log excellent innings in 2021, 2022, and 2023, and head into free agency prior to his age-31 season. He might even be the best free agent starter on the market at that point and land a huge contract - Wheeler, who I referenced earlier, landed a $118 million contract with Philadelphia prior to his age-30 season just last winter despite a worse track record than Castillo at that point.
That said, this might be the best time for Castillo to ‘cash-in,’ if you will. He’s healthy and in-prime, and while putting pen to paper for the next 5-6 years might take nine-figure career earnings off the table, it would absolutely involve him getting the kind of life-altering money guaranteed his way that we’ve all dreamed on before.
What a deal might look like
Prior to his age-25 season in 2017, St. Louis Cardinals ace Carlos Martinez had logged 492 IP of 3.32 ERA ball (118 ERA+), and prior to going through arbitration for the first time inked a 5-year, $51 million deal that included club options for $17 million and $18 million in 2022 and 2023. He was obviously younger than Castillo at that time - and that certainly tweaked both his priorities and those of the Cardinals at that time - but his production is at least in the ballpark of what Castillo has done to date (519.2 IP, 3.62 ERA, 124 ERA+) in a slightly different offensive environment.
More recently, Aaron Nola signed a 4-year, $45 million deal with the Phillies prior to the 2019 season, doing so with 569 IP of 3.35 ERA (124 ERA+) ball under his belt. That was signed prior to his age-26 season and bought out all of his arbitration years (and one would-be free agent year), but will allow him to enter free agency at an age (30) that should still allow him to sign a large free agent deal, if all goes well.
With Castillo several years older than those two, who obviously signed their deals with the knowledge they’d eventually have a chance to reach free agency at a relatively young age still, I think things might have to be modified a bit. Five years for Castillo would render him a free agent entering his age-33 season, taking him past an ideal age to still cash-in with a big deal then. That said, a mere 3-year deal that bought out all his arbitration years wouldn’t give the Reds the concession of a would-be free agent year, somewhat defeating the purpose of why the Reds would want to guarantee him money right now in the first place.
At age-28, what could make the most sense is a 6-year deal, one that’s somewhat similar to the ‘7-year’ deal the Reds reached with Eugenio Suarez just a few years back. Suarez was only entering his age-26 season at that point and had already agreed to a first-year arbitration salary of some $3.75 million, making his extension effectively a 6-year, $62.5 million guarantee from his age 27-32 seasons, with a team option for his age 33 year that could make for a $79 million deal over an 8-year run from age 26-33.
A 6-year deal for Castillo at this juncture that bought out all three of his arbitration years and three would-be free agent years would run him through his age-33 season. Barring a simply miraculous career, it would be the one big contract he signed during his professional career, though even a solid-if-not-spectacular run through is age-33 year would probably get him signed to a smaller contract once the extension ran its course.
Would it be enough? Would Castillo be better off balking at contract talks now, hope to produce another electric campaign in 2021, and head into talks next winter with a much stronger upper hand?
What we do know is that at the moment, revenues league-wide have taken a major hit. We’re anticipating a rather austere free agent environment this winter with only a handful of the elite stars getting serious money, and that doesn’t even get us to the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations that will set the course for the next handful of years going forward. With that much uncertainty in the air, perhaps signing off on a contract extension is precisely what a player where Castillo is in his career arc is looking to do this winter.
The question, of course, is if the Reds have the money and are willing to talk.
I will say this - if the Reds are tight on funds at the moment, maybe this is the best consolation route in which they can spend some. Rest assured, when I say consolation route, that’s not a knock on Castillo as some second-rate player, it’s in reference to the Reds signing one contract that’s simply smaller than a different one they’ve considered pursuing, that in the form of keeping Trevor Bauer around on a free agent deal. If the latter proves to financially difficult and the Reds do lose one ace from their 2020 club, forking over enough to sign another ace long-term would be a pretty decent way of saving face.