After getting outbid for Jose Abreu, the Red Sox apparently weren’t going to let that happen when they had another shot at a young Cuban defector, and today, they’ve agreed to sign outfielder Rusney Castillo for a reported $72 million over six years. This beats Abreu’s total by $4 million, and is almost double the contract that Yasiel Puig got a couple of years ago. There’s little question that the massive success of those two players has forced teams to reevaluate their assessments, and as I pointed out on Wednesday, the international free agent market has been significantly underpriced of late.
Of course, the success of Abreu and Puig doesn’t mean that Castillo’s going to be a monster. Here’s what Ben Badler reports that scouts have told him about Castillo’s potential:
Some scouts who had followed Castillo with the Cuban national team felt he would be a steady, everyday center fielder in the big leagues, while others felt he would fit best as a fourth outfielder, with good speed and defense in center field, a line-drive stroke, an aggressive hitting approach and occasional power.
When Castillo showed up on Saturday at the University of Miami, scouts saw a different physique, which has translated to more power. At 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, Castillo is 20 pounds heavier than he was in Cuba, and it’s in a good way, with plenty of muscle packed on to his athletic frame.
The biggest difference was in Castillo’s power. Scouts get to watch Cuban players take batting practice at international tournaments, and Castillo showed more juice in his bat than he had before he left Cuba. Castillo always had good bat speed and could sting the ball with a line-drive approach in Cuba, but on Saturday he hit balls out to all fields, displaying plus raw power in BP. Several scouts felt Castillo took a home run derby mentality with him into his BP session instead of his standard game swing, but it worked to show some scouts they needed to adjust their grades on him.
“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.”
I’ve seen a lot of people focus on the “4th outfielder” label, but look at the description of the skillset: lots of really good MLB outfielders have had that exact same base of skills and have also been stuck with the “4th outfielder” label only to prove that scouts vastly undersold their overall abilities. Shane Victorino, for instance, fits this model to a tee.
The Sox were widely panned when they gave Victorino three year, $39 million deal because he didn’t have the defensive profile of a center fielder or the power of a corner-type, but these skill requirements for positions are outdated and mostly useless. If Castillo is a good enough defender to handle center field and has decent contact skills and power, that makes him an above average big leaguer, regardless of whether he fits into a specific mold. Badler notes that there’s another comparison that is maybe more along the lines of the 4th OF that people are talking about.
Before Castillo’s rapid strength increase, he was a similar player to Rajai Davis, a 5-foot-9, 195-pound righthanded-hitting outfielder, when they were the same age. Davis, now 33, was another similarly-built speedster who could play center field with an aggressive hitting approach, a solid bat and occasional power, with an underappreciated skill set for a player who was often thought of as a fourth outfielder himself.
While Davis has been a nice role player, you don’t want be paying $12 million a year for his sklillset, and if that’s what Castillo turns out to be, this will have been a mistake. But I might quibble with the idea that Davis has “occasional power”, unless we’re being overly inclusive; for his career, he’s averaged seven home runs per 600 plate appearances, and only 28% of his career hits have gone for extra bases. Davis is about as low-powered as Major League outfielders get, so this would seem more like a floor unless Castillo just can’t make enough contact to make his power play. And even with that lack of power, Davis has a career wRC+ of 89.
If he’s somewhere between Davis and Victorino (career ISO of .154, wRC+ of 106), and he can actually play center field, then he should project as something close to a +3 WAR player, depending on how good of a defender he is and whether he can add any value on the bases. The six years will likely cover his age-28 through age-33 seasons, so even with some drop-off in value at the end of the deal, projecting something like +15 WAR from Castillo over the next six years doesn’t seem unreasonable. That would put this price at around $5 million per win, and there’s no draft pick tax for signing Castillo like there would be for a similar Major League free agent.
Certainly, there’s plenty of risk here, as there is with basically any free agent signing. We won’t know if he can hit Major League pitching until we see him do it, but the description of his skillset makes him sound like the kind of guy that is often underrated, and the recent history of Cuban defectors is strongly positive. This might not work, but it seems like a good bet for a team with the Red Sox financial resources.
Perhaps more interesting is what this means for the Red Sox offseason. They already acquired Yoenis Cespedes and Allen Craig at the trade deadline, and should have Victorino back next spring. Add Castillo to the mix, and there seems to be no room for either Mookie Betts or Jackie Bradley Jr, giving the Red Sox some interesting young outfielders with which to make a big trade this winter.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.