To everybody in the right-field bleachers the last three nights at Wrigley Field:
There may not have been as many of you out there as there were the last time the Reds were in town, but Nick Castellanos heard you loud and clear.
“They let me know pretty consistently,” said the one-time Cub of the three-day “come back to Chicago” chorus he enjoyed all week.
“I really appreciate it,” he said. “Anytime somebody, an athlete or a musician or an artist, is appreciated for what they do, it makes you feel good.”
But don't count on that return engagement just yet.
The man who actually may have launched this year’s dark-horse MVP candidacy during his two-month rebirth with the Cubs in 2019 isn’t sure he’s going to be a free agent yet, much less that he’s headed back to Chicago — much less that he’s a fit for whatever’s next around here.
“That’s a question for the Ricketts family,” said Castellanos, whose four-year, $64 million contract gives him the choice to opt out and become a free agent this winter — something many in the game expect him to do.
Castellanos, 29, has never been in better position to leverage his pure hitting talent than now. He led the National League with a .320 batting average until going 0-for-4 in the Cubs’ 10-inning win over the Reds on Wednesday night.
He also has 27 homers and is among the NL leaders in OPS (.946) despite missing two weeks with a micro-fracture in his right wrist when hit by a pitch in his first game back from his first All-Star appearance — pushing the timetable to return and help the Reds’ playoff push.
But uncertainties surrounding labor negotiations hang over the winter markets, and nobody — including, admittedly, the Cubs — seems to know what this front office will do next in its “not a rebuild,” no matter how much money Ricketts makes available.
Even if the Ricketts family view Castellanos as a fit?
“There’s so many variables. We don’t know how anything’s going to play out,” said Castellanos, who also has the matter of the Reds’ 21-game sprint to make up at least the one-game deficit on the final NL playoff spot that Wednesday’s loss to the spoiler Cubs created.
He’s not even counting variables such as the Cubs’ clear off-season priority of acquiring starting pitching or the need for, say, a shortstop over an outfielder — or, say, a center fielder over a corner outfielder even if they went that direction.
Then, again, there might a DH in the National League by then.
What he does say with some feeling of certainty is that the Cubs remain an attractive organization to players looking from the outside, despite purging the roster of most of its established talent at the trade deadline.
“The one thing that from the outside looking in that will always remain the same is what the Cubs organization is, what Wrigley Field is, how much Cubs fans genuinely love their team. That’s what the organization is,” he said.
“As long as that is served first, it’s impossible for it to go in the wrong direction.”
In other words, one of the most committed fan bases in baseball will be heard and, in turn, will command a team they’re willing to watch.
“That is what I mean,” said Castellanos, who called Wrigley one of his favorite places to play — “if not my favorite.”
Noticeably diminishing crowds already since the trade deadline suggest he might be right — the Cubs risking steeper gate losses even after pandemic restrictions on capacity were lifted.
Signing Castellanos would be an immediate boost to fan interest, based on Cubs fans reactions on social media and at the ballpark to the man who gained instant popularity at Wrigley Field two years ago with hard-nosed play and a monster finish to that season.
But he didn’t fit the Cubs’ budget or their immediate needs then and wound up signing with the Reds that winter.
The Cubs clubhouse culture at the time might not have been the ideal fit for Castellanos, either, as a more old-school, start-early, stay-late grinder who stood out in the more laid-back world of Joe Maddon and Anthony Rizzo.
But if the clubhouse belongs to anybody now it’s Jason Heyward and Willson Contreras, two one-time Castellanos teammates with similar approaches and mutual admiration (Castellanos finding time for a dap with Contreras between plays in the 10th inning Wednesday, about two minutes before Heyward's three-run homer ended the game).
“I do think that everything runs its course at a certain time,” Castellanos said when asked if it might have been time for changes in the clubhouse. “Whether or not it ran its course or it was dismantled too early, my opinion doesn’t really matter.
“At the end of the day we’ll see how it plays out.”
Kind of like we’ll see how his free agency plays out — or doesn’t.
And what uniform he might be wearing the next time he plays a game at Wrigley Field.
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