Starlin Castro Trade Is High-Reward Risk Yankees Can Afford to Take

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 9, 2015

Chicago Cubs' Starlin Castro (13), points skyward at home plate after hitting a two-run home run during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Friday, Sept. 18, 2015 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
Paul Beaty/Associated Press

The New York Yankees have taken a second base situation that impressed nobody and have addressed it with a trade that doesn't seem to be satisfying everybody.

But if you're among those who are on the fence, rest assured. The Yankees have had worse ideas.

If you're just now joining us, the Yankees acquired second baseman Starlin Castro in a trade with the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday night. Joel Sherman of the New York Post first reported the deal in the wake of Chicago's signing of veteran utility man Ben Zobrist, and the team confirmed it shortly thereafter.

Alongside Adam Warren, the player to be named later in the deal is veteran infielder Brendan Ryan, per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. He was most certainly expendable. But after Warren did such a fine job in a swingman role in 2015, his expendability is up for debate.

In the meantime, the Yankees are getting a 25-year-old with a track record that features triumph and frustration in roughly equal measure.

There's the good, which is that Castro is a three-time All-Star with a .281 career batting average. And there's the bad, which is that Castro has been a subpar hitter in two of the last three seasons and has generally been about as up-and-down as a human pogo stick his entire career.

Which player are the Yankees going to get? It's hard to say, frankly. But we can give them this much credit: They're not wrong for wanting to find out.

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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

You know what's important in this situation? Context. Only context can tell us that even if Castro doesn't improve the Yankees' situation at second base, it'll be hard for him to make it any worse.

Ever since Robinson Cano followed the smell of coffee and cash to Seattle two winters ago, things have been pretty rough for the Yankees at second base. According to FanGraphs, Yankees second basemen rank 29th in MLB in wins above replacement over the last two seasons. Gross.

Another important bit of context is what Castro means for the Yankees from a bigger-picture perspective. They've been trying to get cheaper, younger and more athletic. Call it a mission statement, one that Yankees president Randy Levine repeated mere hours before the Castro trade went down.

“I think at the end of the day, this is becoming a young players’ game, and I think it’s important to recognize that,” Levine said Tuesday afternoon, via Brian Heyman of Newsday. “I think that it’s been shown that you don’t need a $200-million payroll to win because I believe, except for us in 2009, nobody’s come close to that."

As a middle infielder who's only heading into his age-26 season, Castro is plenty young and athletic. And with roughly $40 million owed to him over the next four seasons, he's not outrageously expensive.

Ergo, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman saying (via Bruce Levine of 670 The Score) Castro "fills our needs at second base and our vision moving forward."

Paul Beaty/Associated Press

Of course, where this notion goes out on a bit of a limb is the reality that Castro is a recent convert to second base. He's a shortstop by trade and has only been playing second base on a regular basis since Cubs skipper Joe Maddon moved him there in August 2015.

The experiment went pretty well, though. Castro played what the advanced metrics rated as passable defense, and his bat caught fire to the tune of a .353 average and .968 OPS over his final 44 games.

As we discussed a few weeks ago, there are tangible explanations for Castro's hot finish. He started making contact much more frequently, and pretty good contact to boot:

Starlin Castro Before and During Hot 2015 Finish
SpanK%Line Drive%Hard Contact%
201417.622.3%29.1%
Before Aug. 14, 201516.716.0%21.8%
After Aug. 14, 201512.919.8%29.1%
FanGraphs

Maddon attributed Castro's hot hitting to an improved focus on the moment. Also, Matt Goldman of Beyond the Box Score highlighted a mechanical adjustment that erased one of Castro's big weaknesses at the plate. If he holds on to these changes, maybe his hot finish will prove to be something.

But lest anyone get too excited, said hot finish is best taken with a few grains of salt.

Castro was definitely good the last time he was on the field, but not over a particularly large sample size. Certainly not large enough to completely overrule the rest of his track record, anyway.

And as far as that goes, Castro's inconsistent results are just what's on the surface.

On defense, Castro has long been plagued by mental and physical lapses that have dragged down his ratings. On offense, he's an aggressive swinger who doesn't take enough walks or hit for enough power to justify his good-not-great contact habit.

GAIL BURTON/Associated Press

Given all this, it must be understood that the Yankees' deal for Castro is not a sure thing. It's an upside play. And as I proposed a few weeks ago, it arguably made more sense for the Yankees to simply let Rob Refsnyder be their upside play at second base. Maybe he didn't offer as much reward, but he certainly offered less risk.

Even still, this is not a time for ranting and raving.

After all, there is no denying that the Yankees are fulfilling their desire to get younger and more athletic with this trade. And though there's more risk involved in rolling the dice on Castro than there would have been with Refsnyder, at least the Yankees minimized the risk.

They're not going to miss Ryan. And though Warren was an underrated asset in 2015, the Yankees didn't necessarily have a role for him. He didn't have a home in their 2016 starting rotation, and as such, he would have been slotted for long relief in the bullpen. Rather than let him waste away, the Yankees sold high on him.

As for Castro's contract, the roughly $40 million he's owed over the next four years is likely less than they would have had to pay Howie Kendrick or Daniel Murphy in free agency. That's without even considering the lost draft pick that would have accompanied either one of them. Or the fact that both are on the wrong side of 30.

The Yankees are indeed taking a risk with Castro. If his hot 2015 finish turns out to be more of a blip rather than the start of something big, he'll go back to being his usual frustrating self. That would inspire a good amount of rabbling.

The potential reward, however, is definitely there. Castro is young and athletic, and the end of 2015 wasn't the only time he's ever been good. The Yankees did not pay through the nose to find out if he can be good again in one of their uniforms.

Meet the new second baseman. Maybe not the same as the old second basemen.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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