Rusney Castillo is headed to the Red Sox via the largest contract ever given to a Cuban defector. Via WEEI's Alex Speier, the 27-year-old outfielder has agreed to a seven-year, $72.5 million deal that runs through 2020. The contract covers the remainder of this year as well, making it possible that he could debut in the majors before the end of this season.
A line-drive hitter with the elite speed and defensive skills to play in centerfield, Castillo doesn't project to be a superstar on the level of countrymen Jose Abreu or Yasiel Puig, but the total value of his contract trumps that of the former, who signed a six-year, $68 million deal with the White Sox last October. It's substantially more than the seven-year, $42 million deal Puig received from the Dodgers in June 2012, not to mention the four-year, $36 million contract Yoenis Cespedes received from the Athletics in February 2012. Cespedes was traded to the Red Sox in the Jon Lester deal on July 31, so the two Cubans could wind up in the same outfield. It's a situation that could help the newcomer's transition to the US and the majors, but one that creates a logjam on Boston's roster.
Castillo defected from Cuba in December 2013 after spending five seasons with the Ciego de Ávila Tigres of Cuba's top league, the Serie Nacional. He played sparingly in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, splitting time between the infield and the outfield, then broke out to hit .320/.369/.553 with 22 homers and 32 steals in 2010-11, primarily as a centerfielder. He followed that up with an even bigger year (.342/.408/.574 with 21 homers and 27 steals) in 2011-12, but slumped in his final season (.274/.377/.393 with six homers and 15 steals).
Castillo spent time as the Cuban national team's regular centerfielder once Cespedes and future Rangers centerfielder Leonys Martin defected. He played in several international tournaments, most notably earning All-Star honors at the 2011 Baseball World Cup in Panama. Though he played in exhibitions with the national team in the run-up to the 2013 World Baseball Classic, he was left off the final roster for the tournament due to a "violation of the code of ethics of revolutionary baseball," suggesting that he tried to defect. He was subsequently suspended from Serie Nacional, and thus has not played competitively since late 2012.
After defecting, Castillo established residency in Haiti. He held a private workout for the Dodgers in January, and a public showcase that was attended by 28 of the 30 major league teams in Miami in July.
Though not as physically imposing as either Abreu or Puig, Castillo offers a high-energy combination of speed and power that has been compared to the latter as well as to Andrew McCutchen by the most optimistic evaluators, with prime-era Shane Victorinoalso mentioned. The muscular 5-foot-9 righty showed up at his July showcase 20 pounds heavier than his previously listed weight (185 pounds). Known for good bat speed and a line-drive swing during his playing days in Cuba, his added bulk translated to more power, at least in the showcase. Here's what Baseball America's Ben Badler wrote afterwards:
"In BP, he had some length in his swing, so there was pretty good loft power,” one scout said. “Then in games he shortened up his stroke and we saw the line-drive swing that we saw in the past. But he is a lot more physical than what we saw in his Cuban national days. They really did a hell of a job with the body."
Several scouts have questions about Castillo’s hitting mechanics, which isn’t uncommon for Cuban players. He has plenty of bat speed, but the swing does get long and there were times when he collapsed on his back side on Saturday. Players are often a product of their environment. Cuban hitters frequently have long swings because they don’t have to be quick and direct to the ball in Serie Nacional, where it’s rare to see anyone throwing 95 mph and most pitchers can’t even crack 90 mph. There’s more margin for error to gear up with some extra length in your swing when the pitcher is throwing 86 instead of 96. Castillo’s short arms help him though, and if he can make the proper adjustments, he has a chance to be a solid hitter, even if he’s not a premium threat at the plate.
Defensively, when Castillo took groundballs in Miami, scouts saw a player whose infield days are behind him. But when it came to his work in the outfield, he demonstrated the speed, reaction time and arm to play centerfield in the majors, though his arm — graded by at least one scout as a 50 (average) — is considered his weakest tool.
Since he's presumed to be at least nearly ready for the majors, Castillo's presence gives the Red Sox a glut of outfielders to sort through. Cespedes and the injured Victorino are both signed through 2015, set to make $10.5 million and $13 million next year, respectively. Allen Craig, who was acquired from the Cardinals on July 31 in the John Lackey trade, is signed through 2017 with an option for 2018, owed $26.5 million beyond this year. Meanwhile, rookies Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Brock Holt aren't even close to arbitration eligibility, while Daniel Nava will be eligible for arbitration for the first time.
Castillo's signing probably foreshadows some wheeling and dealing from general manager Ben Cherington. It's quite possible that the 31-year-old Nava, who has disappointed this year (.260/.337/.335) after a stellar 2013, could be dealt by the Aug. 31 waiver deadline. Craig and Holt are both capable of playing other positions, though their potential landing spots are complicated by the presence of players such as Mike Napoli, David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks.
The real intrigue involves what happens to the 24-year-old Bradley, a 2011 supplemental first-round pick and touted prospect who in his first full major league season has dazzled with the glove (+15 Defensive Runs Saved) but struggled at the plate (.216/.288/.290 with one homer, eight steals and a 28.7-percent strikeout rate) to the point that he was sent back to Triple-A Pawtucket last week. The 21-year-old Betts, a fifth-round 2011 pick, has rocketed up the organizational ladder, splitting last year between Low-A and High-A and this year climbing from Double-A through Triple-A to the majors, undertaking a hasty transition from second base — where Dustin Pedroia is signed through 2021 — to the outfield. Either or both young players could be used to help Cherington rebuild a rotation that has shed every pitcher who started in the 2013 World Series except for the erratic Clay Buchholz and that doesn't have a single pitcher whom Cherington can pencil in for 200 innings next year.
The full breakdown of Castillo's contract is unknown at this writing, but by including the 2014 season via a prorated share of the major league minimum salary ($500,000), the average annual value of the contract for luxury tax purposes is just $10.36 million instead of $12.1 million. Via Cot's Contracts, the Sox have $94.5 million committed to eight players for next season, but no more than $26.1 million in any of the next four seasons. Having learned the lessons that led to the late-2012 trade of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers, the Sox aren't likely to approach the luxury tax threshold anytime soon, but the extra flexibility helps.
With MLB's current rules proscribing the amount of money every team can spend on amateur domestic and international talent, Cuban players older than 23 years old represent the top alternative to signing major league free agents, a means for well-off teams to exercise their financial clout without having to pay the posting fees applicable to Japanese players. That's what the Red Sox have done with Castillo, who may not be a star on the order of Abreu or Puig, but who should be able to help the team rebound from a dismal 2014 season.