Jerry Dipoto is a fascinating dealmaker. The Seattle Mariners GM has made a name for himself via the copious number of transactions he’s pulled off in his years at the helm of the AL West club, even checking in with the Cincinnati Reds just yesterday with his claim of the recently DFA’d Jose Siri.
Of course, that was hardly the only business Dipoto got done on Monday. He also managed to lock up his best starting pitcher, coming to an agreement with lefty Marco Gonzales on a 4-year, $30 million contract extension, one that includes an option for the 2025 season that could bring the total of the deal to some $45 million. It’s the latest in a long line of extensions that young-ish pitchers have agreed to in recent years, as Gonzales joins the likes of Aaron Nola, Blake Snell, and Luis Severino in having pounced on an early chance to lock-in the kind of life-changing money that gives them insurance should their arms, as unfortunately happens with so many pitchers, simply give out.
(There’s an entire spiel I could dive into here about how the service time and arbitration scales being the same for pitchers and position players is a complete farce and damning to pitchers themselves, but I’ll dodge that for the time being. Point is, pitchers face a whole different level of injury risks than do their position player counterparts, putting them in a much more precarious position to simply wait until free agency to hopefully healthily cash-in.)
Let’s get back to Gonzales, though. The former 1st round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals has emerged as a solidly above-average hurler for the Mariners of late. He topped 200 IP in 2019 with an MLB-best 34 starts, and over the last two seasons has fired 369.2 IP of 3.99 ERA, 3.83 FIP ball, his mix of a sub-90 mph fastball with a devastating change-up fitting the classic profile of a left-handed starter. Those two seasons combined have been valued at 5.7 bWAR and 7.1 fWAR, respectively, and while a grievance dating back to his time with the Cardinals earned him a large check a year ago, he still technically wasn’t set to reach arbitration eligibility for the first time until 2021, meaning the contract signed by the 27 year old will buy out all three arb years, one would-be free agent year, and have an option for another year on top.
Marco Gonzales, while on the mound, has almost the completely perfect inverse of the stuff of Cincinnati Reds starter Luis Castillo. Castillo’s a righty, of course, and runs his fastball up to almost a full 10 mph faster than the lefty Gonzales, though both do have a wonderful proclivity for making batters look stupid with their elite change-ups. That said, a dive into some of their other defining characteristics to date yields two players with very, very similar profiles, and considering many of those traits are the ones used in the arbitration process - the process that serves as the would-be baseline for the dollar amounts in extensions that buy-out those years - Gonzales actually serves as a damn interesting parallel to what the Reds might be considering with Castillo right now.
Here are the two side by side over the last two seasons, for instance, with Gonzales on the top row and Castillo on row two:
Castillo, like Gonzales prior to putting pen to paper yesterday, has just the 2020 season prior to hitting arbitration, at which point he’ll finally lock-in a nine-figure salary. And while the stuff they throw has been wildly different, what hasn’t been is the baseline results they’ve posted over the last two seasons. In other words, what Gonzales just signed for essentially sets the floor for what a long-term extension from the Reds with Castillo would require.
I say ‘floor’ here for a very important reason, however. By definition, arbitration year salaries are doled out based on a ‘what have you done already in your career’ basis, and each one builds off one another through the multi-year process. Obviously, extensions that are designed to buy-out those years ahead of time must preemptively mix in a combination of accounting for what the player being bought out has already accomplished paired with a reasonable expectation for what they would also have accomplished in those years had they opted to go year-by-year. With Gonzales, there’s obviously a chance he can continue to hone his craft into seasons better than he has already produced, but with one Tommy John surgery already under his belt and a fastball that averaged just 88.9 mph in 2019, it’s a lot easier to look at his stuff and think he probably is what he is at this juncture - a damn good pitcher with stuff that has peaked.
That’s excellent, has great value, and is worth a ton of money. That’s why the Mariners agreed to this, of course. With Castillo, though, there’s such tantalizing talent there that suggests that there could still be much more to unlock, and that’s where things get a bit tricky on the Reds end.
Recency bias confirms that trend/potential, too. The 4.7 bWAR/4.1 fWAR Castillo posted in 2019 is better than any single season of Gonzales’ career, while Castillo’s 133 ERA+ clearly out-paced the 109 mark Gonzales posted last year. So why their rolling averages look similar, Castillo’s most recent displays suggest there’s good reason to believe a lot more top-end ability is still in there yet to emerge, meaning it would behoove him financially to get another year of that under his belt before discussing any sort of big money deal that’s based on his pre-arbitration numbers.
That said, it’s always a risky endeavor to suggest a pitcher simply wait to cash-in while betting on themselves and their health, and that’s the one thing that could still persuade Castillo to agree to a life-changing amount of guaranteed money right now.
For the Reds, it’s also an obviously interesting scenario, though for very different reasons.
While on the surface it’s an obvious no-brainer to want to lock-up a budding star to be a Red for life (or close to it), where Castillo is right now might make that a bit less of an urgency. Castillo was a definite late-bloomer, and will pitch in 2020 as things stand as a 27 year old who’s not yet reached his arbitration years. So while it’s sentimental to want to envision Castillo only ever pitching in a Reds jersey, the Reds don’t have to do any extending to still have team control of him through his age 28, 29, and 30 seasons - his peak, essentially. Adding on additional years would be guaranteeing money to an over 30 pitcher without the benefit of knowing how he pitched in those three years, which is always a bit of a precarious situation.
I don’t mean to suggest they aren’t willing to do that, though, as just last year they inked Sonny Gray to an extension that could pay him through his age 33 season, even doing so after the worst season of his big league career. That deal now looks like a bargain for the Reds, one so good that it helped free up other money to help them pursue the big-ticket free agents they signed this particular winter, all while still guaranteeing Gray enough money to swim in for the rest of his days.
4-years and $30 million guaranteed with a club option to make that 5-years and $45 million is nice for Gonzales, but looks a bit light for what a Castillo deal would entail. Perhaps the 4-year, $49 million deal agreed to by Blake Snell when he had just over 2 years of service time is a bit closer, though Snell’s Cy Young Award certainly factored into making that higher than what Castillo could conceivably command at this point. In theory, something in the range of 4-years and $42 million with an option for year 5 might make sense in the parlance of peer-earning, though the brainy caveat is that both sides would have to think both the numbers and the timing were right to make that deal right now.
Castillo could throw 200 innings of 6 WAR ball in 2020, and 4-years and $42 million would look like the Reds signed another bargain. That’s the risk, that’s the gamble. But with Gonzales inking his name on the first contract extension for a reasonably close comp in this particular offseason, Castillo now has a very real, very recent comparison study to add to his decision-making process, and both sides have a floor should they choose to engage in negotiations this particular winter.
Considering the Reds likely have hopes as high for Castillo in 2020 as the rest of us, now just might be the right time for them to pounce.