Why does a rebuilding team like the Chicago White Sox make it a top priority to sign a guy like Welington Castillo?
First of all, it’s not immediately clear that they did; Castillo’s last contract, signed with the Baltimore Orioles before the 2017 season, was also done in December — perhaps Castillo likes to take care of his business quickly, so he can focus on literally anything else but work until spring. That’d be very understandable. That said, Castillo’s two-year, $15 million pact with the White Sox — with a team option for a third year, along with a low-cost buyout — represents an excellent get for a guy who is generally forgotten in the middle tier of catchers (outside of fans who remember him for his uncommon first name, which has earned him the nickname “Beef”).
Part of that is because of who Castillo has played for: He came up as a catching prospect for the “bad old days” Cubs, during the tank years when Edwin Jackson was on the mound for the North Side club and it was stockpiling picks and developing prospects. He predates the Theo Epstein regime at Wrigley entirely, having been signed as an international free agent by the Cubs back in 2004; it wasn’t until 2013 that he became the primary catcher for Chicago, and he still shared the limelight with the more offense-minded Dioner Navarro in 2013, then defensive specialist John Baker in 2014 (“defensive specialist” means Baker couldn’t hit). Then, right on the cusp of Chicago getting good, he was dealt to the Seattle Mariners… who turned right around and dealt him to the Arizona Diamondbacks. When he made free agency after the 2016 season, he signed a two-year deal with Baltimore, but it was really a one-year deal: a guaranteed year in 2017, and then a player option for 2018.
Last season was either the best or second-best year of Castillo’s career. Baltimore grumbled a lot when Castillo decided to spend much of spring training with his native Dominican Republic team in the World Baseball Classic, but it was hard for the Orioles to complain too much; after all, Baltimore centerfielder Adam Jones was instrumental in the first American victory in that tournament. Castillo’s career-high .813 OPS and .490 SLG came in the context of a league-wide offensive resurgence, but even then his 115 OPS+ was the best season he’d ever had at the plate.
If you trust defensive metrics (and perhaps you shouldn’t, especially not for catchers) he was better behind the dish for the 2013 Cubs, but last year for Baltimore he threw out 49 percent of runners who tried to steal on him — the best mark in baseball.
It made perfect sense, then, for him to test the market. But why would the White Sox sign him? They’re not doing anything for another two to three years, right?
Part of the answer to that question is in that team option. Should the White Sox be ready to compete in the 2020 season, they can retain Castillo’s services quite easily; he’ll be 33 years old, which is no spring chicken in baseball years, but many catchers last into their mid-to-late thirties, and Castillo has less wear and tear than most. More importantly, the White Sox are hard-tanking to reboot their franchise — the last remaining players of the old guard are Jose Abreu and Avisail Garcia (yes, 2017 was Garcia’s fourth year with the team; time flies), and the vultures are circling on acquiring them. It’s yet to be seen if either will be dealt, but even if the White Sox are committing to a full youth movement, there are key positions that should be inhabited by competent veterans.
Catcher is one of those: Such positions are not only important for setting an infield defense and adjusting infielder positions on the fly (even though coach micromanagement is way up, it’s still usually relayed through the catcher), but they’re the coaching staff’s proxy when dealing with young pitchers on the mound. Given that outside old man James Shields (another veteran in a position of mentorship), the average age of the projected White Sox rotation is 24, there are going to be a lot of young guys who would benefit from veteran help on the Chicago roster.
It’s within the White Sox’ rights to flip Castillo at the trade deadline, especially if he’s had a good year; there’s not a no-trade clause in the deal. But Castillo likely has the most secure job of any starter on the team next year no matter how poorly he hits, and is unlikely to be traded no matter how well he hits. Omar Narvaez just doesn’t have the toolkit Castillo brings to the table.
They might dump him once the team gets good, or relegate him to backup status, and that’s just how the industry goes. But right now Castillo serves a specific, stabilizing need for the Chicago White Sox. It’s not a surprise they signed him, and it won’t a surprise when they keep him — perhaps even for that third year.