BtBS is profiling several prominent players who became free agents after their team didn't tender them a contract. For a full list, click here.
At first blush, the decision to non-tender catcher Welington Castillo seemed like a curious one from new Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen. Offensively competent catchers don’t grow on trees. While a .264/.322/.423 slash line with 14 home runs, a .319 wOBA, and a 92 wRC+ is not exceedingly impressive by itself, each of those rate stats is slightly above average compared to the league average for MLB catchers in 2016.
Of course defense is incredibly important for those who don the tools of ignorance, and in that respect Castillo is a mixed bag. He had positive marks in regards to DRS and Baseball Prospectus’ Throwing Runs, but graded poorly as a framer according to BP’s Framing Runs.
Framing issues aside it still seemed like a no-brainer to tender Castillo a contract for 2017. MLB Trade Rumors was predicting he would earn $5.9 million in arbitration after the 2016 season that found him worth 1.7 fWAR and 2.4 bWAR, respectively. That price is seemingly a huge bargain for a solid offensive catcher who has eclipsed 375 plate appearances in each of the last four seasons.
So what was Mike Hazen's thinking here?
Dbacks GM Mike Hazen on nontenders: "We're trying to create strategic payroll flexibility."— Nick Piecoro (@nickpiecoro) December 3, 2016
That quote appears to be a convoluted way of saying "we want to save money." It's not a sentiment that fans usually love, but clearly Hazen had a plan in place, as he acted quickly following Castillo’s non-tendering. The Diamondbacks utilized their "strategic payroll flexibility" and inked 33-year-old, all-glove no-bat journeyman, Jeff Mathis to a 2-year, $4 million contract. He will presumably split time with 29-year old Chris Herrmann, who had an impressive offensive showing in 2016 (117 wRC+ in 166 plate appearances) but lacks a track record of any sort. Arizona is hoping Hermann’s offense was no fluke, while ensuring that they have an excellent defensive catcher on board in Mathis. Hermann should command around $1 million in arbitration, which combined with the $2 million they’ll be paying Mathis, means both catchers combined will cost about half of what Castillo would have.
Now that Castillo is a free agent, we move on to ask "Where’s the beef?" (going to play in 2017).
…(you see because Welington Castillo’s nickname is Beef, in reference to the European dish Beef Wellington, and "Where’s the beef?" was a popular ad campaign from the Wendy’s fast food chain from the 1980’s. We have fun here.)...
In the short time that he has joined the ranks of free agent catchers, at least three teams have been reported to have interest in Castillo. And with good reason, too: The list of available catchers is not particularly impressive. Here they are with notable offensive and defense stats and sorted by wRC+:
By both name and actual value, Matt Wieters is the headliner of this group. He’s got the most power and the lowest strikeout rate, and while his defensive numbers are lackluster, they are better than the rest (except A.J. Ellis, but remember Ellis spent 2016 as a backup). Alex Avila’s 104 wRC+ jumps out as well, being that it’s the only number above league average, but it was achieved in just 209 plate appearances and bolstered by a .341 BABIP that will almost assuredly see some regression. Meanwhile Avila’s 37.3% strikeout rate was atrocious, showing the tangible effect of a contact rate that has declined in every season of his eight-year big league career.
Unless you are a believer in Avila’s 2016, it seems that Wieters and Castillo are the two best remaining catchers on the market. It will be interesting to compare the contracts they receive to the three-year, $24 million contract Jason Castro signed with the Twins. Castro’s 2016 wRC+ was 88, so he was basically just as valuable offensively as Wieters (88 wRC+) and Castillo (89 wRC+) with the bat. The difference in money will be almost entirely due to Castro’s outstanding framing and defense. We are about to get a glimpse at exactly how much the market values those skills.
In trimming his team’s payroll, it appears that Mike Hazen actually did Welington Castillo a favor. He may not reach the average annual value of $6 million that was expected in his final year of arbitration with the Diamondbacks, but by getting non-tendered and leaping to the top of the list of free agent catchers, he might find himself with an extra year or two of guaranteed money.
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Chris Anders is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.