Arizona Diamondbacks Non-Tender Welington Castillo, Sign Jeff Mathis

Mandatory Credit: Gregory Bull/AP
Mandatory Credit: Gregory Bull/AP /

In a cost-cutting move, the Arizona Diamondbacks non-tendered incumbent starting catcher Welington Castillo and signed former Marlin Jeff Mathis in his place.

Entering his third and final year of arbitration eligibility, Castillo was projected by MLB Trade Rumors to earn about $6 million. Instead, the Arizona Diamondbacks opted to let Castillo walk and sign veteran backstop Jeff Mathis to a two year, $4 million deal. Overall, the move saves the team four million this season, but was it worth it? Let’s take a closer look.

As it stands now, the Dbacks do not figure to be key players in free agency. Of course they could go out and sign Matt Wieters or Wilson Ramos but that seems unlikely. President Derrick Hall told Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic:

"“It’ll become a challenge in the future. We can’t have too many high-priced players on the roster at the same time in this market. You just can’t. At some point we’re going to have difficult decisions to make. But this year it’s not critical. That’s a good spot to be in as a new GM. (Hazen is) not looking at what he has committed and looking at having to move pieces to bring in others. It gives him time to breathe and look and make his own assessments.”"

At the same time, new GM Mike Hazen himself told Piecoro after speaking with management it appears the Dbacks will enter 2017 with a similar payroll as 2016: about $100 million.

If this is true, Arizona would have about $10-20 million to spend freely after accounting for current contracts and arbitration projections. That being said, the front office is said to be prioritizing the bullpen. Also, on a team that failed to make the playoffs last season there are multiple holes, and spending all available money on Wieters or Ramos would most likely not be smart. Assuming no more signings at catcher, the team will enter 2017 with Chris Herrmann and Mathis behind the plate, with Oscar Hernandez ready in AAA.

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In 2015, when Castillo was acquired from Seattle, he made quite the impression. In half a season (303 PA), the right-handed power hitting slugged 17 long balls and drove in 50 runs for a .813 OPS and a 114 OPS+. Naturally, he entered 2016 as the main starter. Castillo struggled to put up the same numbers, finishing with less home runs (14), in about 150% the plate appearances (457). His OPS dropped to .743 and his OPS+ to 93. If Hazen could assure he would get the 2015 Arizona Castillo back, it’s a safe bet he would’ve been happy to tender him a contract for six million. Instead, he was let go, most likely due to fear that 2015 was the outlier and 2016 is the norm, not the other way around.

Even though an improvement was necessary, was it made? Mathis played strictly a backup role in his four years in Miami, hitting for an ugly slash of .195/.252/.292 with 11 home runs in 686 PA. But, Mathis does not earn his value through offense. Instead it is his veteran presence and job behind the plate that keeps him in the league. The World Series (David Ross) showed how valuable a grizzled-vet behind the plate can be, though Mathis does not have the power that Ross does. It is worth noting that the Marlins went 21-15 in games Mathis started and 58-67 otherwise.

Statcorner and Baseball Prospectus both grade Castillo well below average, and Mathis well above average on their pitch framing. But even with the fielding and character advantage, Mathis is not an everyday starter. Instead, that job could go to Chris Herrmann. The 29 year-old had a bit of a breakout year in 2016, slashing .284/.352/.493 with six home runs in 166 PA. He also swiped four bags and is capable of playing the outfield and first base in a pinch. But can he be trusted to maintain a high level of productivity all year? Before 2016, his career high in OPS was .611 in 2013. From 2012-2015 with the Twins he slashed a Jeff Mathis like .181/.249/ .280, but without the veteran leadership and experience Mathis has.

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It seems the team is relying that Herrmann can indeed get close to that productivity throughout an entire season, as they know Mathis will not be starting many games. Relying on Herrmann to replace Castillo is not all that tall of a task when looking at the numbers. If Herrmann can produce better than the 93 OPS+ that Castillo did while grading at least average behind the dish, this cost cutting move could prove productive, even if it is unexciting. Add in the extra value Mathis adds to young pitchers like Shelby Miller, Robbie Ray, Patrick Corbin, and the newly-acquired Taijuan Walker and it seems GM Hazen made a nice little move to adjust his new team’s catching mix.