Boston Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo is eligible for free agency.
Finding the path to freedom has essentially been the story of Castillo’s life. The Cuban native spent five seasons playing for his hometown team, Ciego de Avila, before defecting from the country in December of 2013. A previous attempt to escape Cuba proved unsuccessful but this time he managed to establish permanent residence in Haiti, allowing him to sign as an international free-agent.
Castillo signed a lucrative 7-year, $72.5 million deal with the Red Sox in August 2014, setting a record for the largest contract ever given to an international player from Cuba.
He made his major league debut that same year at the age of 27, flashing the five-tool skill set that the Red Sox found so appealing during his brief September call-up. Castillo hit .333 with a .928 OPS while smashing two home runs and stealing three bases in 10 games.
That success did not carry over to the following season. Castillo failed to earn a spot in Boston’s crowded outfield in spring training and started the 2015 season at Triple-A Pawtucket. He eventually worked his way back to the majors where he spent about half the season with lackluster results, hitting .253/.288/.359 in 273 at-bats.
Castillo was barely given a chance in 2016, receiving a mere eight at-bats in nine games before a demotion back to Pawtucket. He went 2-for-8 with a double in that brief sample. That was the last we have seen of Castillo at the major league level.
The Red Sox placed Castillo on outright waivers in June of that season, removing him from the 40-man roster. More importantly, it removed his salary from the payroll for luxury tax purposes. Boston was one of six teams to pay the tax in 2016 but taking Castillo’s contract off the payroll sliced a decent amount from their bill.
Boston managed to dip under the tax threshold in 2017 to reset the penalties. They would not have been unable to do so with Castillo on the roster. The Red Sox finished that year with a payroll just shy of $192 million and the tax threshold was set at $195 million. Castillo’s contract would have accounted for over $10 million, easily putting them over the line.
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Castillo had shown some potential but not enough to warrant an everyday starting role. He would have been an expensive fourth outfielder and the Red Sox weren’t willing to cross the tax line by putting him back on the 40-man roster for a modest upgrade to their bench.
Even when the Red Sox ventured back into tax territory for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Castillo wasn’t given another opportunity. There was still no clear path to playing time and the Red Sox didn’t view him as enough of an upgrade to their bench to warrant increasing their tax bill. With ownership intent on slashing payroll in 2020, there was essentially zero chance that they would allow Castillo to threaten their chances to reset the tax penalties.
The burden of his bloated contact trapped Castillo in the minors where he established himself as the best Triple-A hitter in baseball who had virtually no shot at a promotion. Castillo hit .292 with 42 home runs and 51 steals in 467 games spread across parts of five seasons in Triple-A.
Now he is finally free of that contract. Free to sign with a team without luxury tax concerns, free to join an organization that won’t favor their agenda over his production. The Red Sox were never going to give him another chance as long as he was anchored by that contract. This is his opportunity to finally prove he’s capable of sticking at the big league level.
He’s now 33 years old and hasn’t appeared in the majors in over four years. This could be his last chance to play at the game’s highest level. Castillo will probably be limited to a one-year deal to prove himself. It might even be a minor league deal with limited guarantees but at least it will come with an opportunity to earn a roster spot on a major league team.
Nearly seven years after escaping his native Cuba on a quest to achieve his dream of playing for a Major League Baseball team, Castillo is once again experiencing the sweet taste of freedom.