Rusney Castillo a modern-day Boston Red Sox bonus baby
What could possibly go wrong when the Red Sox signed Cuban defector Rusney Castillo to a seven-year/$72.5 MM contract? What did go wrong was that Boston made a decision to offer Castillo to any team – any team that wished to inherit that contract. The line of suitors consisted of zero.
"A bonus baby was an amateur player who signed for a large enough contract that the team was required to keep him on the major league roster for a full season (or two) instead of playing him in the minor leagues. The so-called bonus rule was designed to limit the dominance of teams with deep farm systems and lots of money. The rule was in effect from 1947 through 1965. – Baseball-Reference"
The Red Sox continued to pay Castillo to play in Pawtucket until the contract expired after the 2020 season. Boston was free of a substantial Luxury Tax hit – over $14MM – and Castillo was free to pursue other options. In the past, Castillo – who lived in Boston – expressed a desire to eventually play with the Red Sox or resume his Major League career elsewhere. Elsewhere is now Japan as Castillo has signed to play with the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Nippon Professional Baseball.
Castillo certainly did not experience the financial generosity of the Red Sox with a base salary of $600,000 and the ever-present “incentives.” He did set a record as his contract was the largest ever given out in the International free-agent market. The return for Boston? A mere 99 games and a slash of .262/.301/.379 and an 83 wRC+ for his brief MLB career.
Rusney was a serviceable player at Pawtucket and was one of the better outfielders in Triple-A. Castillo hit .293, had decent power, could play all outfield positions, had a strong arm, and was no clubhouse issue. He was also a regular on the winter circuit in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela.
In another era when there was no luxury tax, Castillo displayed enough of a skill set to be on an MLB roster. In another era, Castillo would have been a bonus baby which is essentially what he was – the modern version. A system that the Red Sox were active in as were most teams. The concept first surfaced in the late 1930s and early 1940s before World War II put it on hiatus.
In the above-mentioned period, teams were not faced with a draft. Occasionally a special prospect would surface and teams would treat it as an auction. When the war was mercifully over the system resumed until baseball instituted a draft rule for financial self-preservation. A player signed for more than $4,000 had to remain on the MLB roster. The rule had a rather sordid history which is no surprise in baseball history.
The most notable – and this is a personal opinion – was Sandy Koufax. Koufax was locked into the Dodgers roster and never saw a day in the minors. Koufax – a legend in the New York area – signed for $24,000. An 18-year-old Al Kaline hit .250 in a handful of games for the Tigers. Two years later Kaline won a batting title. A list of bonus players can be found here.
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The Washington Senators handed Harmon Killebrew a $30,000 bonus. Killebrew did little and when his roster purgatory was up was shipped to the minors. Catfish Hunter’s price tag was $75,000 and teenaged Hunter went 17-19 in his two required roster seasons. All four and exceptional and made it to the pinnacle – The Baseball Hall of Fame. Then there is Jim Pagliaroni and Billy Consolo of the Red Sox.
Pagliaroni signed in 1955 for $85,000 and made an appearance of one at-bat for Boston. Pags then joined the Army for two years. Upon return, Pagliaroni went to the minors and resurfaced in 1960. A powerful right-hand hitting catcher his final Boston average was.254 with 29 home runs. He played in the majors for 11 seasons hitting.252 with 90 home runs.
Consolo was a slick-fielding and light-hitting infielder. He signed in 1953 for $65,000 and did little in his seven Boston seasons hitting just .227. Consolo played for six organizations in his ten-year career. A career that finished with a -0.1 bWAR.
The rule ended with a return to sanity and a baseball draft. Forcing a team to “carry” possible dead roster weight hurt the player’s development, caused roster resentment, and had teams using inventive ways to circumvent the process. A process the Red Sox managed to accomplish with international signings. Maybe the luxury tax is the modern equivalent of the bonus rule?