If there’s been a bright spot in the Reds’ frigid start to the year, it’s been the starting pitching. And anchoring that starting rotation is Reds Ace Luis Castillo. There were more than a few second guesses when Castillo was given the nod to start on Opening Day. Was he mature enough? Had he solved the issues that nagged at him to start the 2018 season? If the team was supposed to #getthepitching, why is a holdover from last season still our best pitcher?

Well, Luis Castillo has effectively shut down all of those naysayers with a blistering start to 2019. Through 30.2 innings, Castillo sports a shiny 2.50 FIP (56 FIP-), 3.26 xFIP (76 xFIP-), and a 34.2% strikeout rate. Those are all near the top of the MLB leaderboard through the first month-ish of the year, and are light years ahead of the numbers he had at this point last season. The walks are still an issue – his 11.7% walk rate is currently higher than his career average – but he’s done a pretty decent job at converting those walks into outs, currently leaving 87.4% of his runners on base to end his innings.

It’s safe to say that, should he keep these numbers up, Luis Castillo could be the Reds frontline starter for years to come. He’s under team control until 2023, his age 30 season. He’ll enter arbitration during the ‘20-’21 offseason, and if everything goes as planned for him, will receive an increased salary in ‘21, ‘22, and ‘23. So the Reds will be riding Castillo into his prime for a relative bargain. If that’s the case, why extend him, right?

The Elephant in the Room

We’ve gone this far into the article skirting around the elephant in the room, the Reds-Starting-Pitcher-Extension-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. A guy named Bomer Hailey signed a huge contract extension after his age 28 season in 2014, and many of you consider it the worst contract extension the Reds have ever signed. It’s really hard to say how that contract would have looked had Bailey not been injured through most of it – but there’s no denying the fact that it ended up being a bad deal for the Reds.

However, if we all get in our time machines and head back to February of 2014, the deal certainly made a lot of sense at the time. Bailey was a really decent pitcher, coming off a 3.9 fWAR season in which he 3.31/3.34 FIP/xFIP. That 2013 season, of course, will likely end up being by far the best season of Homer Bailey’s career.

There aren’t a ton of similarities between Homer Bailey and Luis Castillo. Bailey was drafted and brought up through the Reds system, becoming a phenom top prospect and making his debut at 21. It seemed like he pitched for the Reds for 20 years before signing his extension. Luis Castillo had an almost perfectly opposite track with the Reds – he wasn’t drafted by the Reds, and only pitched in 14 games for the team’s AA team before getting the call up to the big leagues. He made his debut at 24, somewhat older in baseball years than the fresh faced rookie Homer Bailey. Bailey seemed to get a lot of his development done at the major league level, while Castillo entered the big leagues pretty much ready to go.

That last point is important. While Bailey pitched in the big leagues for 7 seasons before earning an extension, I’m proposing an extension for Castillo after only parts of 3 seasons – including only one full season. That’s because I believe Castillo is currently at the same point in his development as Bailey was when he signed his extension. Bailey was roughly a league average pitcher from 2009-2012, before the well above average season in 2013 which ultimately was the deciding factor in offering him an extension, rather than Johnny Cueto or Mat Latos.

Castillo has been slightly above average throughout his short career. His debut half-season was stunning – well above average, with a 84 FIP- and 79 xFIP-. But he took a step back in his first full season, regressing back to about league average (104 FIP-, 91 xFIP-). His 2019 is off to a very promising start, on track to be as good or better than Homer Bailey’s 2013 season. Let’s take a look at the Bailey extension. WARNING: This may cause some of you to grow ill.

Yeah, not a good look. However, Bailey signed this contract 5 years ago at the age of 27 – just a year older than Castillo is now. If we’re saying Castillo is better than Bailey, shouldn’t Castillo make at least this much in a deal?

The Cy Young Winner

Luis Castillo is 26 years old – the same age as guys like Amir Garrett, Kris Bryant and Noah Syndergaard. He’s not exactly in the “young, bright stars” category, even though his major league career is relatively young.

There’s another not-so-young 26 year old pitcher, born just a week before Luis Castillo, who has recently earned a long term contract extension. He’s also the most recent AL Cy Young Award Winner: Blake Snell.

Blake Snell’s career with the Tampa Bay Rays started out pretty similarly to Luis Castillo’s career with the Reds. Called up mid way through the 2016 season, Snell’s start in the big leagues was slightly above average – 82/102 FIP-/xFIP- in 2016, and 99/104 FIP-/xFIP- in 2017. Then 2018 happened. Snell exploded for a 72/75 FIP-/xFIP-, good for 4.8 fWAR, a Cy Young award, and a sparkly new contract. Let’s look at the details:

Wait – this guy got a Cy Young, and he was paid less than Homer Bailey? Even with incentives (Snell can make up to $2M more in that last season depending on award voting), the reigning AL Cy Young winner won’t even sniff the total amount of money Homer Bailey made with this contract.

This should make Reds fans a little more optimistic, and should make the importance of signing Castillo during this season even more obvious. Castillo looks like he’s putting things together pretty well this season – he might have finally figured it out. It’s not out of the question at all for Castillo to have a season similar to Snell’s 2018. Once that happens, his price goes up. If we’re talking fractions of the cost of the Snell contract to sign Castillo in April or May of ‘19, we’re entering no-brainer territory.

Settle Down

Of course, as I mentioned above, the Reds have Castillo locked up until his age 30 season in 2023. The team could theoretically just wait Castillo out, getting his age 26-30 seasons on the cheap before moving on or resigning him later.

Hold on a minute, though. Take another look at that Blake Snell contract. That’s the going rate for an elite, mid-20’s starting pitcher. It’s an AAV (Average Annual Value) of around $9.5M – and again, that’s the top of the scale. No one is going to make more than a guy coming off a Cy Young year, right.

Enter Trevor Bauer. Known for being a pretty, uh, interesting guy, Bauer’s chosen path to getting paid has been to utilize his right to arbitration every single year. Rather than signing an extension with the Indians, he’s decided to squeeze out every dollar he can before joining the free agent crop in 2021. At which point, he’ll reportedly continue to only sign 1-year contracts.

While the move might seem eccentric, it could very well net Bauer more money in the end. He settled with the Cleveland Indians in arbitration this past offseason, winning his arbitration case and earning a $13M salary for 2019. Take another look at the Blake Snell contract. That’s THIRTEEN TIMES the amount of money the reigning Cy Young Award Winner is making in 2019. Snell won’t make $13M until the very last year of the deal. Bauer made $6.5M in 2018, a number Snell will barely eclipse in the second year of his contract. Should Bauer continue at the current rate of his production, he’ll undoubtedly enter arbitration again in the offseason, at which point he’ll almost assuredly settle to make more than $13M for the 2020 season, at which point he’ll have made WAY more money through three years of arbitration than the $17.5M Snell will have through his first three years of his contract.

The point I’m trying to make here is that arbitration isn’t necessarily cheap, especially for top-line starters. Luis Castillo could very well be worth just as much as Trevor Bauer is at the end of the season. Signing him to an extension now, before he gets a chance to use a full season of ace-like statistics in his favor, could dramatically reduce costs for the Reds.

A Contract for La Piedra

Luis Castillo certainly has shown the stuff, the mentality, and the coachability to be ‘La Piedra’ for the Reds pitching staff for years to come. So, what does that look like in contract terms? Here’s what I suggest:

This contract would buy out Castillo’s last two pre-arbitration season (‘19 & ‘20), all three arbitration seasons (‘21-’23), and either one or two years of free agency, with a team option in 2025, Castillo’s age 32 season. That’s likely his entire prime at a pretty good price, when you consider the rising tide of arbitration.

What do you think? Are the Reds ready to dip their toes back into the pitcher extension waters? Is Castillo capable of pitching well for that long? How do you feel about the money? Let us know in the comments!

11 Responses

  1. Steve Mancuso

    I love this series of posts.

    Extensions for pitchers with fewer than 2 years of service time are extremely rare. Castillo entered 2019 with 1+ years of service time. Blake Snell had 2+ years when he signed with the Rays. The Reds can pay Castillo the league minimum this year and next year without any negotiation. Would they be in a better position to judge Castillo’s career arc, including his arm health (always a huge factor with pitchers) if they waited five months?

    We’ve seen throughout MLB young players taking substantial discounts on extension packages to get guaranteed wealth. The shaky free agent market of the past two years has amplified that urge. The Reds did this with Johnny Cueto and Jay Bruce and more recently with Eugenio Suarez.

    I’m for signing Castillo to an extension, to see if the Reds can buy a couple years of his free agency. Doing it now wouldn’t be a huge mistake, but I don’t think it would make a material difference if they waited until next off season, either.

    If the example of Homer Bailey is a cautionary tale, it’s that pitchers who seem to be in great arm health can have sudden and significant reversals.

    • Nick Huckaby

      A bit of push-back on your initial point that waiting five months puts the Reds in a better position for evaluation – the Reds have more negotiating power now (albeit more risk). Dangling a decent signing bonus in front of L.C. could convince him to sign a contract for slightly less than what Jordan proposed (which I think would still be a steal).

      Letting him pitch five more months – especially at his current pace – runs the risk of increasing his asking prices for those arbitration years and beyond.

      • Steve Mancuso

        I don’t necessarily disagree. It’s a close call. But the calculation does depend on what kind of pitcher we assume Castillo will prove to be. Is he a 3.20 guy or a 3.50 guy or a 3.85 guy like last year? If we assume Castillo is going to keep pitching really well, then it makes sense for the Reds to deal now. But if we think Castillo is a little over his head right now, then the Reds would be negotiating when Castillo is at peak value.

        Let’s not obscure the broader point of agreement. Whether one believes the Reds should look for an extension now or in five months from now, it’s still pretty much the same thing.

  2. SultanofSwaff

    I’m naive to the lay of the land as far as the next CBA. Is it in the player’s best interests to take the money now or are better contracts expected after an agreement is reached??

    • Steve Mancuso

      That’s a really good question. And no way to know. You’d expect the MLBPA will negotiate for some combination of more money to players at earlier ages and levels of service time and a reduction of years before free agency.

      If the biggest factor in the recent depressed free agent market is teams understanding and quantifying that players just aren’t worth as much after age 32, that’s not going to change. Certain exceptions apply, of course. We’ve seen the bullpen market, for example, stay pretty robust. Although even there you have Craig Kimbrell.

      Given the uncertainty, and that the next CBA won’t come on line for a few years, I wouldn’t expect it to affect player negotiations much right now. A couple years from now that would be more expected.

  3. emfueago

    I don’t really understand the escalation in salary for contracts that are guaranteed. Setting aside present value of each dollar versus future value, I would think it would make sense to offer an inducement early on since the player is looking to secure himself and his family. Maybe start at three to five million with a slightly lower AAV so the player can do what he wants to do for family, etc , but save the team a little more in the long run plus smoothing out the payroll per year. I guess you lose money of the player is suspended for something but other than that I don’t see why the standard approach isn’t to pay more earlier rather than a lot later.

    • Jordan Barhorst

      Votto’s contract will basically guarantee everyone else’s contract will be backloaded until 2025

  4. Old-school

    Plus the reds have money to spend now. Or even a signing bonus.

    • Jordan Barhorst

      There would for sure be a signing bonus involved. That’s not reflected here.

  5. Brian Jolley

    I would like to see contracts that are much more incentive driven. If he wins 20 games and pitches 200 innings give him 20 million (or some equivalent SABR metrics). If he wins 10 games and pitches under 150 innings pay him 5 million, etc. Players would have the opportunity to earn more, more incentive to stay hungry, and keep from having clubs hamstrung from bad contracts (i.e. Alex Gordon). I wonder if there could be a set scale for all MLB players. Kind of like fantasy baseball but with dollars. Just thinking out loud (or by typing).

  6. Rich H

    I agree with Steve, this series is great.

    I like this contract proposal. If the Reds wait too much longer, Castillo’s continuing performance and the looming CBA really eats away at the player’s incentive to sign a team friendly deal. I’d bet there is a decline in these very team friendly extensions the closer the CBA gets.