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Boston Red Sox

Tim O’Sullivan column: Red Sox add star Cuban outfielder, allay fans’ fears

  • Cuba's Rusney Castillo reacts after being tagged out by South Korea's second base Choi Joo-hwan during the seventh inning of their Baseball World Cup first round game in Santiago, Panama, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

    Cuba's Rusney Castillo reacts after being tagged out by South Korea's second base Choi Joo-hwan during the seventh inning of their Baseball World Cup first round game in Santiago, Panama, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

  • Rusney Castillo

    Rusney Castillo

  • Cuba's Rusney Castillo reacts after being tagged out by South Korea's second base Choi Joo-hwan during the seventh inning of their Baseball World Cup first round game in Santiago, Panama, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
  • Rusney Castillo

We may not know much about Rusney Castillo. But after the Red Sox signed the 27-year-old Cuban outfielder to a 7-year, $72.5 million contract yesterday, we do know more about the direction these Sox are headed.

First, if Castillo joins the club this season, there will be a legitimate reason to watch the remaining 34 games. Second, the offseason hot stove knob has been cranked to high, because Boston now has so many outfielders that a major deal feels inevitable. Finally, the Sox are not operating with a small market mentality, which some feared after the trade-deadline housecleaning. They are pro-active, big-market players ready to spend.

Let’s start with what we do know about the 5-foot-9, 205-pound Castillo. He debuted in Cuba’s top league, Serie Nacional, in 2008. He became an everyday starter in 2010-11 as a right fielder and hit .324/.373/.555 and led the league with 29 steals. He was also the

starting center fielder for the Cuban national team in the 2011 World Cup and in 10 games he hit .512/.524/.854. In 360 total games in Cuba, he hit .319/.383/.516 with 51 home runs and 76 stolen bases.

Castillo defected from Cuba in December of 2013 and hasn’t played in more than a year. He was not on the Cuban national team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic because he was suspended for a “violation of the code of ethics of revolutionary baseball,” according to Baseball America. Translation: He had already tried to defect.

Comparing Castillo to other Cuban-born outfielders like Boston’s Yoenis Cespedes, the White Sox’s Jose Abreu or the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig seems like a natural leap. Heck, in early August Cespedes told WEEI.com that Castillo was like a smaller version of Puig. But those comparisons don’t seem right.

While Castillo has reportedly gained 20 pounds of muscle since defecting and is projected to have some major league power, chances are good he won’t have the same pop as Puig, Abreu or Cespedes. It feels more accurate to compare Castillo to Shane Victorino – an elite athlete who can reach double-digit home runs but affects the game more with his speed. One scout likened Castillo to Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutcheon, which would be a dream comparison for the Sox if it proved true.

Considering the potential and hype surrounding Castillo, it only makes sense to let him play for Boston during the last few weeks of the season. Puig, Abreu and Cespedes all made immediate impacts when they joined the big leagues; let’s see if Castillo can do the same. Let’s see his speed, let’s see if he can patrol right field at Fenway or how much ground he can cover in center, let’s see if he can be a major league leadoff hitter.

After Red Sox fans get to see all that, they’ll be anxious to see what happens to Castillo and the rest of the Boston outfield horde in the offseason.

The Sox will have eight outfielders under contract for 2015 – Castillo, Cespedes, Victorino, Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, Brock Holt and Mookie Betts. Boston could, potentially, send Betts and Bradley to the minors and use Holt as a utility man and not be forced to trade someone from that group, but there are other outfielders to consider.

Minor leaguers Alex Hassan and Bryce Brentz are also on the 40-man roster. And 21-year-old prospect Keury De La Cruz will probably get taken in the Rule 5 Draft if he’s not added to the 40-man roster by November.

That’s just too many outfielders to carry. Couple that numbers problem with Boston’s obvious need to add some veteran starting pitchers for the 2015 season, and a trade or two seems like the only obvious conclusion.

It also seems like the trade(s) will be significant. The Sox can combine a variety of major league-ready outfield types with some of their young pitching prospects to create a package that would be hard to refuse. Yes, we’re looking at you Miami. It may take a treasure chest of gold-plated moons to pry Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins, but Boston is now in a position to offer such a deal.

And given how active General Manager Ben Cherington has been in reshaping this team, don’t be surprised if he does make some mind-boggling swaps. Which leads us to the final point.

After Boston unloaded 80 percent of its 2013 World Series-champion starting rotation around the trade deadline, including beloved ace Jon Lester, there was a fear that the Sox had suddenly developed a small market mentality. That they were afraid to spend money or risk any long-term contracts.

Signing Castillo for a little more than $10 million per year is hardly a big market-only type of deal. In fact, it could prove to be a bargain if he delivers on his potential. But it is the most total money ever given to a Cuban defector, it’s the most the Red Sox have ever spent on an international free agent, it was enough to outbid teams like the Tigers, Phillies and Yankees, and it represents a willingness to go above and beyond for talent.

And that’s the bottom line with this deal. Who knows what Castillo will be in MLB. The important thing is the Sox are willing to spend the time and money to find out.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at tosullivan@cmonitor.com or 369-3341 or on Twittter @timosullivan20.)

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