Why is Rusney Castillo now rich? Why did the Red Sox open the vault to confer $72.5 million upon a center fielder who has never played a single game in the majors and who hasn't been seen in a game of any sort since 2012?
Goldilocks comes to mind. Castillo represents a rarely available sweet spot in the talent pool. The 27-year-old Cuban arrived in the perfect place at the perfect time: In possession of a broad skill set, but perhaps just as importantly, not too old to have inordinate risk of a disastrous performance decline somewhere in the middle of a seven-year, $72.5 million deal (more accurately characterized as a "six-plus" year deal); not too young, with the chance of a devastating struggle in his transition to the big leagues.
Castillo, at least in theory, represents something that is just right, a player who has tremendous physical talent and who is at a career and life stage that suggests he is just getting ready to arrive at the peak of his abilities. The contract will run through his age 32 season (unless Castillo elects to opt out after his age 31 season in 2019, in which case the deal still would capture all of what the Sox consider his prime), with Castillo thus representing a rare kind of player.
The daunting reality for major league baseball teams looking to acquire prime-age talent is that their options are almost non-existent. They can wait for the once-every-five-years reality of a free agent reaching the open market at the start of his prime (something that almost surely would require the sacrifice of a draft pick and a nine-figure commitment). They can mortgage the farm in a trade. Or they can try to acquire elite players from Cuba who have ranked, in recent years, as among the most impactful in the game starting in their first seasons.
The fact that such talent is rarely available dictated a considerable market for Castillo.
"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. But the success that the Cuban players have had immediately upon signing contracts, I think that's been a very lucrative combination," said Castillo's agent, Brodie Van Wagenen of Roc Nation Sports. "There were 28 teams at the showcase [for Castillo] that we had in Miami on the 26th. The interest coming out of that workout was really extraordinary -- something we haven't seen before in a typical free agent process."
The Sox were, of course, one of the 28 teams that attended Castillo's workout, but he had been on the team's radar for three years, starting with international tournaments in Amsterdam in 2011 and Taiwan in 2012, ultimately convincing the team that he has a skill set and the makeup to merit the largest guarantee ever given to a player coming out of Cuba.
"We think he has a chance to impact the game in a number of different ways," said Sox GM Ben Cherington. "He runs well. he’s got a good, solid throwing arm. Solid power. He’s got a good track record. He can play defense. a good offensive track record in Cuba and in International play. We see him as a very good major league player and part of a winning team here in Boston."
"He's very athletic. He's an explosive player. We're excited about the tools he brings to the table," added Red Sox assistant director of player personnel Jared Banner. "The thing that he does that I really like, he puts pressure on the defense. You can't teach speed. he has that. He has those aggressive instincts. He's going to be the kind of guy who's going to bring excitement to the ballpark.
"We have seen him make some pretty incredible, athletic defensive plays. We have seen him steal a lot of bases, bunt for base hits, things like that -- just a very well-rounded game, and he can do some exciting things on the field."
The Sox ultimately evaluated Castillo as a player who represents a well above-average runner (grades of 65 to 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale have commonly been conferred upon him) which in turn translates to above-average range in center field, with a grade of roughly 55-60 as a defender. There's variance in terms of how his arm grades, but the Sox still view his arm strength as being a tick above average, with enough in the tank not only for center field but also, potentially, to be adequate in right.
Offensively, the team views his floor as being better than an average big league center fielder (the standard for which is .264 with a .325 OBP and .394 slugging mark in 2014; the Red Sox rank 29th in average from that position (.204), 28th in OBP (.281) and last in slugging (.282)), but with the possibility of even more upside.
After all, in a workout in front of team officials at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Castillo proved capable of clearing the fences in right-center field. He has an aggressive approach, meaning that his walks totals may be modest, but the team has seen him swing at strikes who smokes line drives all over the park and for whom the idea of double-digit home run totals isn't far-fetched, and for whom there is the potential for even bigger power, depending on how his above-average raw power translates into games, where he typically has more of a line drive swing.
"We have seen him hit the ball out of the ballpark to all fields. … He definitely has some raw power. He has the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark. We know that," said Banner. "In terms of approach, that's the toughest part of the game when you get in a major league batter's box, facing major league pitching on an everyday basis. I'm sure it will be a challenge for him initially just to get adjusted again, but we really believe in the athleticism. It's the same game he's been playing his whole life. We think he has the tools necessary to succeed."
In other words, in Castillo, the Sox have added a player with the potential to impact the game in every way.
There's considerable risk. He hasn't ever played a game against a major league opponent; he hasn't played in game competition for 18 months.
The Sox are hoping that he gets his work visa in the coming days so that they can start to get him into minor league games with the hope of bringing him up to Boston before the end of the season. Depending on where he is in relationship to where he needs to be in terms of the speed of games, the team could send him to play in the Arizona Fall League (which it did with Jose Iglesias after he signed in 2009) or a winter league in preparation for being on the field in 2015.
But if he can be a player who impacts the game with above-average contributions from the batter's box, the field and on the bases while adding some power, that's the sort of player who has commanded $15 million to $20 million annual salaries in the recent past rather than the roughly $12 million a year that Castillo will get from 2015-20. (His agent, Van Wagenen, accurately describes the deal as a contract for "six-plus" years, since the 2014 component -- for which Castillo will get a $100,000 salary -- simply represents an opportunity for him to get his feet wet.)
And it should not take long to figure out if that's the kind of player that Castillo is. He's at the point of maturity as a baseball player, ready to tap into his full complement of talents in his prime. He's not a 34-year-old Nelson Cruz, whose defensive value is non-existent and who faces the likelihood of offensive skill erosion in his next deal; he's not a raw young player like a Jackie Bradley Jr. or Mookie Betts, whose time as an impact offensive player (and, in Betts' case, defensive center fielder) remains TBD.
(Indeed, for the Sox, one of the benefits of signing Castillo is that (barring a trade) it now permits them to proceed more deliberately with someone like Betts and even Bradley, giving them opportunities to round out their development in the minors before they are thrown into the big league mix.)
Castillo, at least from the standpoint of his age, should be ready to make an impact -- now, and through the life of his deal.
"This is an exciting player. He’s got a great combination of skills, defensive ability, speed, solid power. He’s got a really strong track record in Cuba," said Cherington. "We’re excited to add him to the organization and we feel he can be a part of winning Red Sox teams here for a long time."