Friday was the deadline for teams to place their blind bids for hyped outfielder Rusney Castillo.
The Red Sox are rumored to be among the frontrunners for the speedy young athlete from Cuba.
There has been much division among both media and fans alike as to whether the toolsy player is ultimately worth a multiyear deal similar to that of Yasiel Puig’s, my colleague Conor Duffy among the most recent to state his case against Castillo, but I’m here to state my case for a gamble on Castillo’s potential.
The 27 year-old Castillo represents a dying breed in today’s MLB; impact players hitting the open market as they enter their prime have become a scarcity as teams scurry to lock up their young talents years before they sniff open water. The league has drastically shifted away from team-building through free agency, but it still remains a proven way to fortify a roster in search of a championship. Teams have become much more careful with their top talents in recent years, with small market squads and rebuilding organizations dealing off players like David Price and Jeff Samardzija rather than watch them leave in free agency or worse, sign them to a large contract to play for a losing squad that will only hurt the organization’s long term flexibility.
The 2013 Red Sox became the prototype of a new age of team-building, with an emphasis on extensive scouting and advanced analytics. They cashed in on role players who exceeded expectations, such as Jonny Gomes, David Ross and Koji Uehara, and supplemented their core with players just below star status on very low-risk contracts who were able to play to up to their full ability: Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli.
But there is one other facet to modern free agency that the Red Sox have yet to master: The international free agent pool. As competitors struck gold with players like Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, the Red Sox swung and missed (horribly so) on Daisuke Matsuzaka who was never able to sustain success. All of these players are superstars now, some of the very few first tier free agents who still were found on the open market.
Rusney Castillo may be the next to join this list. While less hyped than the rest of this group, Castillo owns a dynamic skill set, one that slots rather remarkably well into the Red Sox lineup. Bearing many similarities to top prospect Mookie Betts, Castillo has game-changing speed, an above average hit tool, decent pop and the potential for Gold Glove defense if technique can be taught as a complement to his prodigious physical tools.
Unlike Betts, Castillo is just about to enter his peak years. It is for this reason that the Red Sox would be smart to add him.
With the Jacoby Ellsbury sized hole at the top of the lineup, the dynamic 2013 offense sputtered its way to embarrassment this year. What has been lost behind underwhelming performances from players like Dustin Pedroia, Daniel Nava, and Victorino has been the steep drop-off in baserunning. The Red Sox led baseball as a team in stolen bases last year and now find themselves 29th without Ellsbury leading the way. Few expected Jackie Bradley Jr. to replicate Ellsbury’s offensive production – that was expected to come from other players (Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks) – but one facet of Ellsbury’s game that the team neglected to replace was speed.
Castillo has the potential to provide everything Ellsbury did, good (sometimes great) hitting, adequate power, and strong defense but the one thing we know without a doubt he can bring from day one, is speed. Slotted at the top of the lineup, he will give the Red Sox a legitimate option as their 2015 leadoff hitter, and although his floor is adequacy, his ceiling is stardom.
But I also have ulterior motives behind my interest. The Red Sox will surely add arms this offseason, but whether a reunion with Jon Lester is in the works, or the team is locked in on James Shields as pundits like Buster Olney have speculated, the team is still at least a number 2 starter away from a playoff rotation in the aftermath of the John Lackey trade. Another power hitter would be good insurance in case Father Time finally catches up to David Ortiz, as there are still health concerns about Napoli and Allen Craig.
The Red Sox figure to spend big, but if their goal is truly to contend in 2015, they will need be active on the trade market. There are two big stars that seem to be in perpetual connection with the Red Sox as of late: Cole Hamels and Giancarlo Stanton.
Nick Cafardo commented on Twitter about the borderline shocking amount of time the Phillies have spent scouting the Red Sox and while no deals were made at the deadline, this certainly leaves the door open for a trade this winter, and while there are mild concerns about Hamels making the transition and still being an ace in the AL East, few could argue he wouldn’t be a more than viable number 2 paired with Shields or Lester.
The Red Sox have a stacked farm to be sure, but many big names are in line to fill holes on the major league roster, and will be hard to give up. Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, and Henry Owens are either on the Major League roster or penciled in for long careers at Fenway. The big name on the farm who seems to have a rather cloudy future at Fenway, is Mookie Betts. While Betts has become a personal favorite and offers mouthwatering potential, it is hard to say with a straight face that he can offer as much to a team with World Series aspirations in 2015 as Cole Hamels, not to mention his being blocked by Dustin Pedroia.
Betts would definitely be a conversation starter in a Hamels deal. The Phillies reportedly have an astronomical price tag in mind for their ace, but a prospect of Betts’ caliber combined with some other talented but not top tier prospects such as Sean Coyle and Brian Johnson, and the Phillies might listen.
If the Red Sox are comfortable with the loaded free agent market for starting pitchers, then they will likely turn their attention back to phenom Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton would be a monster in the middle of the Sox lineup, providing a replacement when Ortiz does eventually retire. The Marlins are disinclined to trade Stanton for now but an extension remains a longshot, and the Red Sox arguably have the most chips to offer in return. Of particular interest to the significant Cuban population in Miami may be newly acquired Yoenis Cespedes, and yup I’m already going there, Rusney Castillo. While it may sound downright diabolical to sign Castillo under the notion that he would entice the Marlins to give up Stanton, but a diabolical plan may be needed to pry a player of Stanton’s caliber.
If Rusney Castillo is going to be a bust, we will likely have a pretty good indication by the end of this year and can keep Betts and look into other SP options. According to Peter Gammons, Castillo is expected to sign for anywhere between $40 and $70 million, and my guess is it will be a five or six year deal. This contract would present very little risk to the team; They would only be committing to him through his early thirties long before he starts to decline, and coming at a potential average annual value in the $8-12 million range, Castillo could never clog the payroll the way Carl Crawford once did.
The Red Sox desperately need a leadoff hitter. Even if Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley are everything we thought they would be next year, we still need someone with the wheels to kick our offense into an extra gear. Castillo is an insurance policy for our young outfielders, and at his worst, he is a slightly overpaid player who will still be able to contribute solid hitting and elite speed on a short term deal with a price point that won’t impede the team’s future ventures (sounds a lot like a healthy Shane Victorino to me). He is a low-risk, high-reward option; he represents the prototypical target of the new Red Sox regime and he needs to be signed.