Cubs Bet Big on Starlin Castro’s Improvement

Two months ago, Dale Sveum said this about shortstop Starlin Castro, who forgot how many outs there were on a potential double play ball:

“It’s something that’s obviously unacceptable at any time,” Sveum said Monday.

“Whether we could have turned the double play or not is irrelevant to not knowing how many outs there are in the most important part of the game. These things have got to stop happening or he’s going to stop playing.

“These kind of things are things that my son does in high school, maybe.”

Well, I’m pretty sure Castro won’t be getting benched any time soon, as the Cubs have reportedly agreed to sign him to a seven year, $60 million contract extension that should be finalized in the next week or two. The deal contains a team option that gives the Cubs control over Castro through the 2020 season, buying out up to four free agent seasons in the process.

So, yeah, Castro’s job security isn’t really a question anymore. The question now is whether this was the right bet for the Cubs to make.

On the one hand, Castro can be a frustrating player. He’s been prone to mental lapses like the one cited above, he’s been chided for a lack of hustle at times, and his approach at the plate seems to be getting worse, not better. On the other hand, Castro is just five months older than Deven Marrero, the Red Sox first round selection in the most recent June draft, and Marrero is currently playing in the short-season New York-Penn League. That Castro is in his third year in the Majors and holding his own at this point in his career is a sign of his legitimate talent.

The list of shortstops who have posted better offensive numbers than Castro in 1,000+ plate appearances through age 22 is very, very short. In the last 60 years, in fact, the list is only four players long – Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken, Jim Fregosi, and Wil Cordero. Shortstops who got to the Majors early and hit worse than Castro has to date? Gary Sheffield, Alan Trammell, Robin Yount, and Jose Reyes all fall in that category. These are the kinds of history lessons that make you want to lock up Castro now, before he takes a big step forward offensively and starts seeing free agency looming in the near future.

However, those kinds of facts ignore the fact that Castro hasn’t really improved much since getting to the big leagues in 2010. He’s posting career worst marks in walk rate strikeout rate, and BABIP, all of which is leading to a 91 wRC+, worse than he posted in either of the last two years. His defense has improved, and there are fewer questions now about whether he can remain at shortstop, but his offense hasn’t progressed as quickly as the Cubs would have hoped. Of course, he’s still an above average shortstop even at this level, but usually, large contracts like this are given to players who begin to establish new levels of excellence. Castro’s contract bets on that leap coming before it has actually materialized.

History suggests that the leap probably is coming. Most guys who are above average players from 20-22 become excellent players in their mid-20s, and Castro certainly has the physical tools to become an excellent player. If Castro follows a normal development curve, he could easily be a +4 or +5 win player by the time he would have reached free agency, and a contract to keep him in Chicago then would have been two or three times the size of this one. So, if this is the cost of keeping Castro in Chicago through his twenties, then it’s probably better than not signing the deal and going year-to-year, as that would bring legitimate risk of a breakout season pushing his costs up very quickly.

However, given the contracts that have been handed out to other players at similar spots of their career, the Cubs didn’t really get much of a bargain here. Thanks to MLBTradeRumors extremely useful Extension Tracker, we can identify five other players with similar levels of service time who were also going to qualify as Super-Twos, meaning that they got an early bite at the arbitration apple and were due for larger raises earlier in their career. Going back to 2008, here are the players who signed multi-year deals as Super-Twos with between 2-3 years of service time:

Player Age Avg WAR Years Dollars Team Options
Robinson Cano 25 2.8 4 30 2
Cole Hamels 25 3.6 3 20  
Tim Lincecum 26 5.6 2 23  
Jay Bruce 24 3.0 6 51 1
Gio Gonzalez 26 2.5 5 42 2
Starlin Castro 23 2.7 7 60 1

Age represents their first season covered by the extension, while average WAR is their career total prorated to either 600 PA or 180 IP, depending on whether they are a hitter or a pitcher. Hamels and Lincecum decided to take shorter deals that would not delay their free agency, and their 2012 performances show the relative benefits and costs of betting on their own future performance. Hamels came out far ahead of where he would have otherwise, while Lincecum might regret not taking a long term deal when he had the chance.

Among those who did sign away free agent years, though, it is interesting that there’s a nearly perfect linear increase in terms of years and dollars with each each extension. Cano got 4/30, Gonzalez got 5/40, Bruce got 6/50, and Castro has got 7/60 – in each case, the guaranteed dollar amount went up by $10 million for each additional year added on. And, note the relationship between length of deal and age – including the team options, the contracts for Bruce, Cano, and Castro all end after their age 30 season despite the fact that they signed them at different ages. Bruce and Cano were coming off better seasons than what Castro has posted this year, but he had youth on his side, which is why (along with inflation, anyway) he got more guaranteed money than either one.

The other notable takeaway from these contracts? You probably don’t want your best young players qualifying for Super-Two status. For comparison, both Justin Upton and Andrew McCutchen also signed long term extension for $51 million over six guaranteed years with a little over two years of service time under their belts when they signed the deal, and both were coming off substantially better seasons than what Castro has put up this year. Castro got more guaranteed money than either one despite being an inferior player because of that extra year of arbitration eligibility.

Had Castro been called up a couple of months later in 2010, he would have been looking at another year of near-minimum salary, and would have been negotiating from a significantly reduced amount of leverage. If you look at the deals signed by the like of Alexei Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia, you’ll notice that Castro’s Super-Two status probably got him an extra $10 to $20 million over the life of the deal.

The Cubs can’t undo the service time clock, so they were faced with a decision to do this now or wait until he has a breakout season and then try to lock him up at a higher price. History says that breakout is probably coming, so as long as Castro didn’t need that future paycheck to serve as a motivational tool, they were probably wise to get this deal done now. The combination of Super-Two status and his exceptionally young age just didn’t do them many favors when negotiating, however, and Castro ended up pretty well compensated relative to other players in a similar situation. Now the Cubs just have to hope that the expected breakout comes sooner rather than later.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Doug Gray
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Doug Gray
4 years 3 days ago

Just another example of why Billy Hamilton sucks.

Allan Gustafson
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3 years 10 months ago

hey dougie… are you drafting Hamilton next year?

Eddie
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Eddie
4 years 3 days ago

This is all heresay, so take it with several grains of salt. That said, the rumor in the Chicago sports media is that the front office is actively working with Castro to change his plate approach this season, so that he turns on the ball more and expands his strike zone less, but perhaps at the cost of some of his batting average. Note that since the non waiver trade deadline, Castro has hit almost exclusively fifth, a traditional lineup spot for a power hitter. He’s clearly struggling and a .311 OBP isn’t really ideal, but his power numbers are up for the third consecutive season, and the drop in his OBP from last year can almost entirely be explained by a lower BABIP. If these struggles are related to his working on a changed plate approach, that new approach could and hopefully will reap serious benefits down the road for the club. At 22 and locked into a long term contract, Castro has plenty of time to rework his approach and become the monster at the plate that most Cubs fans believe he will be. I’m very optimistic.

Am I even serious?
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Am I even serious?
4 years 3 days ago

If Castro really is trying to use his power more, then more flyballs = lower BABIP

Eddie
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Eddie
4 years 3 days ago

I think the assumption is that Castro will make up for the lower BABIP with a higher BB% once he learns to lay off pitches outside of the strike zone. Like I intimated in my first post, it’s a work in progress.

JimNYC
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JimNYC
4 years 3 days ago

So where do you see Castro ending up his career? Better than Wil Cordero? Better than Tony Fernandez? Better than Derek Jeter? Better than Honus Wagner? Inquiring minds.

James Gentile
Member
4 years 2 days ago

Better than Neifi Perez.

Krog
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Krog
4 years 3 days ago

Even if Castro stays a 2-3 win player over the life of the contract, the low annual salary will still make this a good decision for the Cubs. Add in the possibility of Castro breaking out and becoming a superstar, and you have to grade this contract as a big win for the Cubs. If I’m Castro, I would have gone through arbitration instead of signing this contract. I think he left a lot of money on the table for the security of $60 million. Then again, there isn’t much difference between $60 million and $100 million. It’s far more than any of us will ever have in our lifetimes.

dan w
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dan w
4 years 3 days ago

One piece of information to consider in these early extension deals where the player elects security over potentially more earnings going year to year is signing bonus. In Castro’s case $45000.

Much like the Sal Perez extension the signing bonus probably didn’t get him far before reaching the majors so the security is probably more attractive.

Mark
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Mark
4 years 3 days ago

No, that’s not true. If he remains a 2-3 win player it won’t be a good decision because none of his traditional stats stand out. And while that’s not a problem for the Fangraphs crowd, arbitrators care a lot about those pretty traditional stats. So if Castro doesn’t improve with the bat, he would have made less $$ in arbitration then the Cubs guaranteed him and less in FA then the Cubs guaranteed him.

The Cubs took on too much salary given Castro’s lack of performance. There’s nothing wrong with extending him, but as Dave said given that Castro’s bat is more projection than production the Cubs shouldn’t have had to spend as much as they did.

amgarvey
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amgarvey
4 years 3 days ago

Huh? He’s hit .300, .307 and is currently batting .280 at 20, 21 and 22. While stealing over 20 bases the last two seasons and upping the number of homers each year. Those are just the sort of traditional numbers arbitrators love.

bbolander
Member
4 years 3 days ago

Jim Hendry just had to start that service clock a month early to make him a Super 2 didn’t he. That’s a lot of extra money for an extra month in the majors.

Ruggiano's Pizza
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Ruggiano's Pizza
4 years 3 days ago

I very much doubt an extra $10-20 million over 7 years is going to prevent the Cubs from signing a player when they get good again. They ain’t the Royals or Twins. The money is pretty much irrelevant.

Stephan
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Stephan
4 years 3 days ago

If money were irrelevant to the cubs, why don’t they just buy every FA on the market? They have a budget just as other clubs do, even if it’s larger.

JayT
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JayT
4 years 3 days ago

Because not every free agent can be had for $10-$20 over 7 years. We’re talking about less then $3 million a year here. That amount of money is never going to stop the Cubs from adding someone that they need.

ValueArb
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ValueArb
4 years 2 days ago

If money is irrelevant then the Cubs sign every free agent, and cut the worst performers after 1 year so they have roster space to sign every FA next year.

Money is always extremely relevant, even to the Cubs, even only $3M per year.

Chummy Z
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Chummy Z
4 years 3 days ago

And here I expected some lacking generic young player contract analysis that has almost become the norm for Fangraphs, which is usually along the lines of “he’s young and cost-controlled, here’s the per-WAR value relative to the FA market, thus it’s a good deal.” There are times when that’s the right way of looking at it, but I feel like Fangraphs relies on that alone a bit too much (the Trade Value series especially used the “young and cost controlled” argument way too much for my liking). I’m not a big fan of your writing at times, Dave, but I’ll certainly give you this one–spot on analysis.

Weznoth
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Weznoth
4 years 3 days ago

He can probably sleep at night now.

Chummy Z
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Chummy Z
4 years 3 days ago

Ya, I know. That’s why I had to tell him that.

jcxy
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jcxy
4 years 3 days ago

just curious, why don’t you show the $/WAR figure on the contract comparables? I (assume) we know what the spot rate for contract inflation was (and can back calculate regular real world inflation too), so figuring this out isn’t a big deal and might be more instructive of where the contract fits in with the others.

Guy
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Guy
4 years 3 days ago

The real winners here are the Wrigleyville bars, where Castro spends his downtime.

Pacoheadley
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Pacoheadley
4 years 3 days ago

Gah, Gary Sheffield used to be a shortstop? I forgot about that, I can’t even imagine that.

Juan
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Juan
4 years 3 days ago

Great hitting shortstops who can also field, and are young, are very
hard to find. Since the Cubs are rebuilding, this is just gravy. They
have a player they can build a team around. But, he needs
discipline. Players that have mental lapses should be fined, as
there are no excuses for mental lapses, especially for shortstops.
Wrigley Field is a homerun park. So, you need effective pitchers
that can get ground outs, as well as some strikeouts. For this
to happen, the Cubs need sure handed infielders, who know how
many outs there are at all times.

JayT
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JayT
4 years 3 days ago

I think this is a great deal for the Cubs. They are locking up a guy that has superstar potential for the cost of a 2 win player, for eight years. Barring a career ending injury, even if he has flat-lined in his production and he is just a 3 win player, the Cubs will still be getting surplus value from this deal.
I think this is really just about as good of a $60 million deal as you can possibly hope for.

amgarvey
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amgarvey
4 years 3 days ago

I’m not sure why the cubs have to hope for anything in order for this contract to work out. He would have provided surplus value each year he’s been in the MLB as it is. Any breakout which as Cameron pointed out is likely will just make this contract go from good to phenomenal.

ezb230
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ezb230
4 years 2 days ago

Barring catastrophic injury, I see four probable outcomes for Starlin moving forward, three of which would provide the Theo’s with at least equal value for the money. (1) His defense, power, or patience improves, (2) he improves in two of those areas, (3) he doesn’t improve at all but sticks at ss (and is somewhere near the fielder that the ’12 metrics say he is), and (4) he doesn’t improve as a hitter and has to move from ss.

This contract is a bargain if the Cubs get outcomes 1 or 2, and it’s probably even money if they get 3. One could argue that 4 is most likely, but given Starlin’s age, the field seems like a decent bet.

ezb230
Guest
ezb230
4 years 2 days ago

That should be “the Theos”. Actually, it should probably just be “the Cubs”.

Daniel
Member
Daniel
4 years 2 days ago

I don’t agree but rather than going into it without knowing your arguments, why do you say it could be argued that the fourth option is most likely? I mean, you can argue anything, but I’m interested to know why you think that would be the easiest to answer.

amgarvey
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amgarvey
4 years 2 days ago

It does seem rather counterintuitive that the most likely scenario for a 22 year old who broke into the majors at 20 is that they don’t improve. Actually I think counterintuitive is putting rather nicely.

ezb230
Guest
ezb230
4 years 2 days ago

I like Starlin and think he will improve, but stars are rare, basically by definition. Most players don’t become stars. Also, prior to this year at least, I would argue that the majority opinion on Starlin was that he would eventually have to move off of shortstop. I don’t think that is the most likely outcome at this point, but as I said, it could be argued that way.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas
4 years 2 days ago

I think it’s an even bigger win for the Cubs because they have a lot of money. Instead of signing say 1 ace and 1 superstar masher, maybe now they have the money for 2 FA aces. For a team like the Rays, a deal like this is basically the difference between keeping him and not keeping him. For the Cubs, I really feel the benefit of having talented, cheap, young players is A) covering up free agent mistakes and B) being able to sign more free agents.

Andy
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Andy
4 years 1 day ago

Honestly I don’t even see how this is an argument. Money isn’t an issue for the cubs as it is for say the Royals. Unless Castro has a major injury it’s hard to imagine the cubs regretting the deal. At current level he’s probably slightly below the worth of the average value. So, in all likelihood he’ll out play the contract or at least live up to it. And even if he plays slightly below it they are still likely to prefer him to say a FA SS who would likely be over paid in comparison as well.

You can’t really examine the contract in a vacuum. The risk reward for this deal is in the cubs favor compared to signing a FA in many cases.I could see the argument against the deal if the cubs were in a situation like the Rangers with Profar beating down the door but that just isn’t the case. Also, having Castro in place allows the Cubs to focus on other areas of need. They will likely have to take risks in FA as is to fill in positions in the OF and pitching in the short term. And while they could have just waited for arbitration, the fact is Castro could have a huge year and quickly change their potential budget. Castro, Jackson and Rizzio are probably the only pieces they wont part with so locking them up makes sense so they can focus on the other various positions they have needs at.

As a big market team the cubs are limiting their exposure. They are willing to potentially slightly over pay to ensure they don’t get hit hard. The ability to project their costs is probably worth that risk.

classhole
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classhole
3 years 11 months ago

Castro’s walk rate has risen steadily since an atrocious May (1.7%). His walk rate is 5.8% (308 PA, 6/01 – present). Hopefully he carries his trend through the rest of the and improves upon it next season.

Nick
Guest
Nick
3 years 6 months ago

For their best homegrown position player since Ernie Banks, 60 million over 7 years is a steal.

Besides, super two exists in part because players drastically outperform their contract and wind up underpaid. Castro has already made the Cubs millions by being a plus WAR everyday shortshop playing at league minimum. Seems to me the Giants are showing it doesn’t always kill to grease the hand that feeds you.

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