Brodie Van Wagenen, the agent who represented outfielder Rusney Castillo in the free agent process that resulted in his client signing a seven-year, $72.5 million deal with the Red Sox on Saturday, offered an outline of the trajectory that greeted his client’s arrival in Major League Baseball.
Rusney Castillo joins Red Sox GM Ben Cherington to sign his seven-year, $72.5 million contract. (Roc Nation)
The free agent process began in earnest on July 26, when Castillo held a showcase for interested teams; 28 of the 30 clubs attended. Based on what Castillo showed that day, interest in his services did not abate.
“The interest coming out of that workout was really extraordinary — something we haven’t seen before in a typical free agent process,” said Van Wagenen. “As we started to narrow the field, we knew that we couldn’t have private, individual workouts for all 28 teams involved in that and still be able to keep a pace where we could sign and reach an agreement in a short period of time to still allow him to sign a 2014 contract. So, effectively we used economic interest as a narrowing scope to decide who got the private workouts and the private showcases. So we narrowed that list to about 13 teams, and then ultimately we narrowed that again to eight teams that received private workouts and extensive dialogue.”
From the beginning of the process, the Red Sox — under VP/player personnel Allard Baird — were among the most aggressive teams.
“Allard was really aggressive and really genuine in his approach and his level of interest that the Red Sox had. That came through to us, that gave us the insight that we felt like the Red Sox were going to be serious contenders,” said Van Wagenen. “As time played out, their level of interest continued to stay steady. Other members of the Red Sox organization became more involved, naturally. And then once we had our private workout, it was very clear that the Red Sox were going to be in one of the final positions as we went through it.”
Even when the Sox acquired a pair of outfielders at the trade deadline, adding Yoenis Cespedes and Allen Craig, Van Wagenen didn’t get the sense that Boston’s interest in his client had waned.
“I think that once a team has identified true interest in the player, not just in the short-term but also the long-term, I don’t think short-term transactions or specific player transactions will necessarily wane that level of interest,” said Van Wagenen.
The process of defining the value of Castillo via free agency was an interesting one. Instead of defining Castillo’s value relative to that of other players from Cuba, the agent used past free agents with comparable skill sets to define what kind of financial guarantee Castillo might deserve. It is worth noting that Castillo received less than, say, Jacoby Ellsbury (seven years, $153 million) and B.J. Upton (five years, $75 million), but more in guaranteed dollars (if not average annual salary in all cases) than Curtis Granderson (four years, $60 million), Angel Pagan (four years, $40 million), Shane Victorino (three years, $39 million) and other recent free agent center fielders.
“I think this was actually an interesting process, because from the beginning, we got the sense that it wasn’t going to be valued simply as a Cuban market contract, but rather it was going to be a contract that was set in the context of what talent with premium speed, premium defensive ability and potential for plus power, what the marketplace was for players with those skills,” said Van Wagenen. “What we found was that there was a premium placed on those players with that dynamic skill set in past free agent marketplaces, and especially when teams were evaluating what was going to be available either at the trade deadline this summer or more importantly in free agency this winter, there just weren’t players that matched his skill set, and so it became a matter of how do you gauge his talent with respect to the market for free agent players and what’s the appropriate level of discount that you might take for a player that truly has never had a track record within Major League Baseball.”
Still, that discount wasn’t going to have to be extreme. After all, the level of interest in players from Cuba has been immense, for a number of reasons. They are coming to the big leagues in the middle of (or, as in the 27-year-old Castillo’s case, right before) their primes, as opposed to MLB free agents, whose best days are often behind them. They do not requiring a signing club to part with a draft pick as compensation, as elite major league free agents (who receive qualifying offers from their prior clubs) do. And there is now a track record of players from Cuba making successful and immediate transitions to the big leagues as impact players who don’t require time in the minors.
The result has been a succession of quickly escalating guarantees to Cuban players. Cespedes signed a four-year, $36 million deal; Jose Abreu reached a six-year, $68 million deal with the White Sox; and Castillo raised the bar with his $72 million guarantee.
“Two things: One, just a few years ago, players weren’t getting paid what they’re getting now, so the economics have escalated across the game in general. But the opportunity to get free agents with premium talent at young ages in their prime is rare. The scarcity of that talent has been fueling the marketplace,” said Van Wagenen. “The success that the Cuban players have had immediately upon signing contracts, I think that’s been a very lucrative combination.”
Money and organizational fit were the driving forces behind Castillo’s interest in other teams. However, the Sox’ acquisition of Cespedes was unquestionably a plus when Castillo considered making the transition to the States.
“It’s always helpful to have eyes towards what the future clubhouse environment would be. I think Cespedes’ success as well as [Yasiel Puig] and [Aroldis Chapman] and other players that have come as well, especially Abreu of late, it gave him tremendous confidence that he could succeed here,” said Van Wagenen. “But as far as comfort level here, I think that once the Cespedes trade happened, it electrified the opportunity as we were narrowing our choices to a decision, because then it gave a tangible comrade that he could have in this clubhouse.”
On the field, Castillo was open-minded about his potential role with a club. While he was primarily an outfielder in Cuba for the last several years, he worked out at short and second (the positions where he got his start in Cuba’s Serie Nacional) in his showcase. He would have been open to moving back to the infield, but with the Sox, he never had to consider that outcome.
“Positional preference didn’t lead the day in terms of where he decided to play. I thin the opportunity and the way he fit into a roster construction moving forward was something that he looked at,” said Van Wagenen. “So for some teams that had interest in him in the infield, we wanted to have a better understanding of where him playing in the infield, how that would apply short-term and long-term to their roster construction. I think those discussions were had, but I think it was clear here that from the beginning they wanted him to be an outfielder.
That, in turn, will offer Castillo a sense of place in the coming years. So, too, will the environment that he encountered for the first time on Saturday at Fenway Park.
“When you see the environment here that exists here in Boston every day, with a team that isn’t in first place right now, but you’re still selling out the stadiums with a real energy and electricity in the ballparks, that’s what he’s used to playing in Cuba all the time. That is his normal,” said Van Wagenen. “It would be odd for him to go to another city where they’re not filling the stadium for a typical day. So I think this feels like what a baseball environment is supposed to be, and I think it’s very natural for him.”