In defense of Luis Castillo

Posted on October 18, 2010 by

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Mets fans are torn on who the team’s new manager should be. They are also conflicted about who should be the new GM. There are questions if the team is good enough to compete as is or if the core should be broken down and sold off and view 2011 as another rebuilding year. But one thing most fans agree on is that neither Oliver Perez nor Luis Castillo should be back next year.

To hear fans tell it, Luis Castillo is a lousy baseball player with an albatross contract that is keeping the Mets from fielding a contender. Neither one of these ideas are true.

Since 2002, the first season that WAR is available on FanGraphs, Castillo has earned more Dollars (calculated as WAR converted to a dollar scale based on what a player would make in free agency) than his actual salary in each year in which he has played at least 100 games. So, in seven of nine seasons, Castillo has been an underpaid asset and the other two years he has been injured.

Unfortunately, two of those injured seasons came in the past three years. In 2008, Castillo suffered a hip injury that limited him to 87 games and last year he suffered a foot injury which sidelined him for 47 days. When Castillo returned in 2010, he found reduced playing time as the Mets gave Ruben Tejada an extended look. Castillo ended up playing just 86 games with 299 PA.

In his last two healthy seasons, Castillo put up a 1.6 WAR in 2009 and a 2.3 mark in 2007. The former mark came despite a -11.2 UZR mark for fielding, which significantly cut his overall value. In limited time last year, Castillo was a much better fielder. He posted a 2.8 UZR, which extrapolated to a 6.8 UZR/150.

Castillo has been all over the map with his defensive numbers. In both 2003 and 2005, he was a double-digit positive UZR fielder. In 2006 and 2007, he was 1.4 and 1.3, respectively. Then he was negative numbers in both 2008 and 2009 before last year’s comeback.

John Dewan’s Defensive Runs Saved shows a similar profile, although slightly more pessimistic one than UZR. He was good from 2003-2005, but DRS never pegged him as a double-digit positive performer. This system showed him basically the same in 2006-07, but both times in negative numbers. Castillo was horrible in both 2008 and 2009 according to DRS and then bounced back with a +1 last season.

Either way, I think it is safe to say that Castillo was really bad defensively in 2008 and 2009 and close to an average fielder last year. With age and the small sample from 2010, I think most systems would project Castillo to be a below-average defender again in 2011, although perhaps in the 6-8 runs below-average range, and not double that.

Regardless, if Castillo is to have any value, he has to recover his OBP skills. Last year’s .337 mark was 50 points beneath what he posted in 2009 and his lowest mark since a .307 season in 1998 as a 22-year old in 44 games.

Castillo has a career .368 OBP. If you are only going to bring one skill to the table, OBP is as good as any and better than most. But Castillo remains a good base stealer, too. Even though hobbled by the foot injury last year, he was successful on 73 percent of his steal attempts. In three-plus years with the Mets, Castillo has successfully stolen on 81 percent (55-68) of his SB tries.

In a full season, Castillo has a chance to be a 1.5-2.0 WAR player, or right about what his contract calls for, including pro-rated bonus.

And that is why it is so frustrating to see fans with pitchforks and lit torches when it comes to Castillo. Most fans see the dropped pop-up against the Yankees or the seemingly constantly-injured player and they want to run him out of town at all costs.

But if Luis Castillo is your biggest problem, your team is probably in pretty good shape.

Was it a mistake to give him a four-year deal? Unequivocally, yes. Should it be viewed as an albatross? Just as assuredly, no, it should not.

An albatross deal is one that prevents a team from making moves to better itself. The Castillo deal was for $24 million (and $1 million signing bonus) over four years. Last year the Mets, according to Cot’s, had a $126,498,096 payroll, which means that Castillo accounted for less than five percent of the Mets’ Opening Day payroll.

You want an albatross? Try Barry Zito, who accounted for over 19 percent of the Giants’ Opening Day payroll this year. Think Zito is an outlier? Then consider Alfonso Soriano, who accounted for over 13 percent of the Cubs’ Opening Day payroll. Or Gil Meche, who took up over 16.5 percent of the Royals’ Opening Day payroll. And you would shudder to learn that Vernon Wells was responsible for over 26 percent of the Blue Jays’ Opening Day payroll.

Those are albatross contracts.

If Luis Castillo can rebound to his 2009 numbers, he has a good chance of being worth his contract, depending on what his fielding is like. And the Mets can help neutralize his fielding issues by replacing him late in the game, either with Ruben Tejada or another defensive-first infielder.

I would rather see the Mets give Castillo the second base job to open the 2011 season than to release him or take on someone else’s problem contract. It is easy to see Tejada (or Reese Havens, if he can ever stay healthy) being the long-term solution at second base. But the future does not have to start in 2011 for the Mets at this position.

Assuming Castillo is completely over the foot and hip injuries that have plagued him recently, he is an acceptable major league second baseman. While Tejada’s hot September is encouraging for all Mets fans, it would not be the end of the world to have the soon-to-be 21-year old open the year in Triple-A, where he has all of 218 ABs.

So, if the Mets open the year with Castillo, try to focus on what he brings to the table. Yes, he has no power and is defensively challenged. But he also historically gets on base at a very good clip and steals at a very high rate.

In 1984, the Mets had a second baseman who posted a .360 on-base percentage and was successful on 78 percent of his stolen base attempts. Davey Johnson gave this guy a chance after previous Mets managers Joe Torre, George Bamberger and Frank Howard wouldn’t give him a shot because he was weak on defense and had no power.

Now Mets fans want Wally Backman to be their manager because they loved him as a player. They should extend that same shot to Castillo this upcoming year at second base.

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Posted in: Perspectives