Well, the Rusney Castillo era in Boston appears to be over before it ever really began. Signed to a six year, $72 million contract back in August of 2014, Castillo didn’t impress in his rookie season, and now, he appears to not have a job in Boston.
Brock Holt will start season as Red Sox primary LF against righties.
— Ian Browne (@IanMBrowne) March 29, 2016
With Chris Young around as an obvious platoon partner for Holt, the decision to start Holt in left field leaves Castillo without a path to any real playing time, as Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley are both very good defenders in their own right, and so the team won’t even be in need of a late-game defensive replacement. And with Andrew Benintendi looking like the team’s left fielder of the future, this was going to be Castillo’s shot at holding down a regular job; he’s unlikely to ever get another real crack at it in Boston now, barring an unforeseen injury.
So it’s probably time Castillo to get a change of scenery. The Red Sox don’t need a $10 million fifth outfielder, Castillo won’t benefit from sitting on the bench, and while he has minor league options remaining, sending him to Triple-A apparently isn’t in the plans.
Holt starting again in LF, and could get nod Opening Day. But for those thinking Rusney might begin in minors was told 'not going to happen'
— Rob Bradford (@bradfo) March 27, 2016
That leaves a trade as the obvious solution, though Castillo’s contract — he’s due $56 million over the next five years — will be an obstacle for teams pushing up against their budgetary constraints. The Red Sox will likely have to eat some of the money or take back an overpriced contract to offset the money, but that should be doable. So with that said, let’s look at the best options to find Castillo a new home before Opening Day.
The fit here is so obvious that it almost feels too easy. The Padres rank 29th in projected center field production, with Melvin Upton expected to get most of the playing time as it stands right now. Upton performed decently as a role player last year, but that was driven mostly by a .348 BABIP; the underlying contact issues still make him a poor choice as an everyday player at this point in his career. And given that the Padres are not really contenders, they are better off using their at-bats in 2016 to look for guys with upside, and Castillo still flashes enough potential to look like a guy who could turn into a league average center fielder, or maybe even a bit above that if he learns to elevate the ball.
Upton would fit the backup CF role in Boston better than Castillo does; Castillo would fit as a starter on the rebuilding Padres better than Upton does. Swapping the two of them even works financially, as Upton’s also an underwater contract, with $32 million left on his deal over the next two years. While Boston probably wouldn’t want to swap the two contracts straight up — they’d only save about $25 million in a straight deal with no cash included — the Padres could cover the $5 million salary difference in 2016 and 2017, leaving the deal as budget-neutral until 2018, at which point San Diego would be on the hook for the remaining three years and $35 million left on Castillo’s deal.
Taking on $35 million in long-term guarantees, with no extra expense now, seems like a pretty easy move for the Padres. Even if they’re not huge fans of his skillset, they have the playing time opportunity to give him a chance to increase his own trade value, and if he continues to show elite defense while hitting a bit better than he did last year, they could potentially move him to a contender needing an outfielder later this summer. They’re not going to be able to dump a significant part of Upton’s contract over the next two years, but taking a bet on Castillo could give them a chance to either find their center fielder or facilitate the rehabilitation of his value, letting them clear some money off the books after he shows he can play in the big leagues.
Of course, there’s a risk that he continues to not hit, and then the team has taken on some additional dead money above and beyond what they have right now. But the Padres are in a position where there’s more benefit to taking risks than playing it safe, and this seems like a pretty clear opportunity for them to land a potentially useful player for little cost to the organization.
The only team to rate behind the Padres in projected 2016 center field value, the Brewers are in full-on rebuild mode, and are using the 2016 season to give playing time to a host of other interesting-but-flawed players. Keon Broxton looks like the team’s regular center fielder, so Castillo would almost certainly make the team better in the short-term, but the Brewers don’t really care about short-term production that much, and the cost difference between Broxton and Castillo might scare them off.
But as we saw with the Jean Segura trade, the Brewers are willing to take on some dead money in order to buy some future talent, so the Red Sox might be able to ship him to Milwaukee if they included a prospect of some value in the deal as well. I could see the Brewers being interested in guys like Sam Travis or Brian Johnson, who don’t have obvious futures in Boston, and if the Red Sox were willing to include one or both, perhaps the Brewers would take a majority of Castillo’s remaining deal while also sending a guy like Broxton back to help Boston maintain outfield depth for the short-term. But this feels like more of a stretch, and the kind of deal that a rebuilding team probably wouldn’t want to make right before Opening Day.
The Phillies have a decent center fielder in Odubel Herrera, but their right field situation is one of the biggest disasters in baseball. They just signed Will Venable after he was released by the Indians, and if you’re thinking about rolling with a guy who was deemed not good enough to crack Cleveland’s putrid outfield, you’re really scarping the bottom of the barrel. Like the two teams listed above, the Phillies aren’t really trying to contend this year, but they could and should do better than throwing at-bats away on guys who have no real chance of accruing value.
Money shouldn’t be a problem for the Phillies; their revenues are strong enough to support a top-tier payroll, and they could easily take on Castillo’s entire contract. Given that it will be difficult to get free agents to sign for market-price deals while the team tries to pull itself out of the ashes, taking on contracts like Castillo’s might be the best way for them to add talent in the short-term. And like the Brewers, they could probably try to extract a prospect or two to make the deal worthwhile from their perspective.
Of course, Castillo is probably a little less valuable in right field than he would be in center field, so there’s a bit less incentive for Philly to make this move than either San Diego or Milwaukee. But their financial position gives them a greater ability to take on money, so the relative cost to their budget would be lower. It’s at least something the team should explore.
As mentioned, the Indians outfield is pretty terrible — that a contending team is really planning on rolling out Rajai Davis, Tyler Naquin, and Marlon Byrd on Opening Day is stunning — but the team has passed up plenty of other opportunities to improve themselves over the winter, so there’s no real reason to think they’d change course and add salary now. Castillo should appeal to them, but they let Austin Jackson sign with a division rival for peanuts, so I wouldn’t count on it.
The Braves could also be a fit in a bad-contract swap, as they have Michael Bourn’s remaining two years to help offset Castillo’s deal, but with Ender Inciarte in center field, the team would have to acquire Castillo with the thought of using him in left field, which would move Hector Olivera back to third base. It seems a bit late in spring to be changing positions on him again, so I’d call that a longshot.
The Orioles could definitely use another outfielder, but they like the speed-and-defense package of Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard, and intra-division deals can be tricky to pull off. Maybe there could be a deal to be made with the team swapping Castillo for Mark Trumbo so they could have an actual outfielder in right, but I don’t know what Boston would do with Trumbo. It’s probably not a fit.
The Angels could use a left fielder, but they seem to have zero money to spend, given the other options they’ve passed up this winter. They should be trying to surround Mike Trout with as much talent as possible, but Arte Moreno apparently prefers to avoid the luxury tax, even if it means that they squander prime years of the best player in baseball.
The Reds could potentially get involved by offering Jay Bruce in a trade, since they’ve been trying to dump his contract all winter, and a Bruce/Chris Young platoon could be a useful left field tandem for the Red Sox, allowing Holt to move back into a super-utility role. But Castillo is only three months younger than Bruce, so swapping the two wouldn’t really help the team get any younger, and they’d have to take on some long-term money in order to make the trade. For a team that seems to be more interested in dumping money than anything else, Castillo probably doesn’t hold a lot of appeal.
In the end, the Padres seem like the path of least resistance. They have the need for a center fielder, a bad-contract outfielder to send back to make the trade work financially, and a GM who made a significant trade right before Opening Day last year. Other teams could make deals work as well, but Castillo for Upton seems to be the deal that makes the most sense. Given that the Padres might also be interested in Pablo Sandoval, the two team’s should already be talking, and perhaps there’s an even bigger deal here that would remake both team’s rosters right before the season. But even if they can’t come together on a big deal, simply swapping center fielders looks to make plenty of sense from my perspective.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.