On Saturday, the Red Sox signed Rusney Castillo to a seven-year, $72.5 million contract, the largest ever awarded to an amateur player. Castillo, the latest free-agent position player to come out of Cuba, will likely be Boston’s starting center fielder next year, if not next month, which means the Sox will have to hustle to trade or reposition their excess outfielders, many of whom come with questions about offense, health, or youth. Clearly, the Sox believe that Castillo can supply the certainty in center they crave as they try to turn a last-place club back into a contender. So what can Castillo do? And why will he outearn Cuban superstars such as Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu? Let’s explore.
What’s Castillo’s Story?
After defecting from Cuba in December, Castillo established residency in Haiti, trained in the Dominican Republic, and held a well-attended workout on July 26 in Miami, where he whetted teams’ appetites and touched off a fierce auction for his services. Now that he’s passed a physical and signed a contract, he’s a work visa away from getting into minor league games as a possible prelude to a promotion after rosters expand.1
Castillo’s contract went into effect immediately, paying him $100,000 for 2014 with a $5.4 million signing bonus, which reduces the deal’s average annual value and corresponding luxury-tax hit.
Castillo, who turned 27 in June, is a career .319/.383/.516 hitter with 51 homers and 76 steals in Cuba, though his line slipped to .274/.377/.393 in his most recent season. Although he has some infield experience, he looks more comfortable in the outfield. Because of his compact, powerful build, though, he doesn’t look like the prototypical center fielder. Some of that power developed recently: Castillo, like Puig, was suspended from his final season in the Serie Nacional, Cuba’s highest league,2 which hurt his conditioning, but he transformed his body (and drove up the bidding) after leaving the island, packing 20 pounds of “good” gains onto his 5-foot-9 frame to bring his weight up to 205. Body Mass Index is a poor indicator of physical fitness for elite athletes, but it’s a decent indicator of size, and among qualified center fielders this season, only the 6-1, 230-pound Marcell Ozuna can match Castillo’s 30.3 mark (which, for a nonathlete, would just barely break the “obese” barrier).
In Castillo’s case, the suspension came because of a “violation of the code of ethics of revolutionary baseball,” usually code for a failed escape attempt.
Extra weight notwithstanding, Castillo is a speedy runner and skilled base-stealer who ran the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds at his workout (slightly slower than the time Yoenis Cespedes posted at his 2011 workout), according to one evaluator. And his additional muscle translated to improved batting-practice power, which made him more interesting to some teams that had previously seen him purely as a speed-and-glove guy.
Why Did Castillo Get More Money Than Previous Cuban Free Agents?
It’s no coincidence that 2014 has brought unprecedented paydays for international free agents like Castillo and Masahiro Tanaka. Nor is it solely a product of the fact that inflation inevitably rewrites every spending record. Major league teams are rolling in revenue, yet there are fewer appealing players on whom to spend the spoils — partly because of that prosperity, and partly because of amateur spending restrictions in the collective bargaining agreement. Inflated television contracts have enabled even risk-averse small-market clubs to offer extensions that can guarantee young players’ financial futures, and the more stars who sign early extensions, the fewer who become free agents in the mid-twenties age range that makes players particularly appealing to teams.
Even when international talent is taxed or comes with the equivalent of convenience charges — a $20 million posting fee for Nippon Professional Baseball stars, or penalties for exceeding the amateur spending pool — it makes sense for many teams to partake. Five-year veterans of the Serie Nacional, however, are exempt from MLB’s international spending limits, so players like Castillo come with no strings attached. If you can’t spend what you want in the draft and you can’t find what you want on the domestic free-agent market, Roc Nation has (well, had) a center field to sell you.
A team that wants to sign someone equivalent to Castillo this winter will be able to choose from a wide selection of attractive center fielders that includes Colby Rasmus and … well, really just Rasmus. That sort of scarcity leads to lofty prices, so while Castillo’s contract is sizeable by the standards of international free agency, it’s not necessarily exorbitant relative to what a comparable talent could expect to earn on the domestic free-agent market. As Dave Cameron noted at Fox Sports last Wednesday, Castillo’s recent Cuban predecessors have provided excellent value, delivering wins at about half their going rate on the domestic free-agent market. Most of the surplus production comes from Cespedes, Puig, and Abreu, a small sample on which to base a big decision,3 but as long as he’s in center, Castillo doesn’t have to hit like the latter two to justify his salary. If he can be an average major leaguer over the life of the deal —more like Leonys Martin than Puig — the Sox would get more than their money’s worth.
Although that list of active Cuban free-agent sluggers might soon expand to include Cubs call-up Jorge Soler.
Since Boston’s 2012 collapse and the Beckett–Crawford–Gonzalez salary-dump deal with the Dodgers, the team has refrained from making or taking on long-term contracts, maxing out at three-year commitments to Shane Victorino and deadline acquisition Allen Craig. In that sense, signing Castillo for seven years represents a departure from the club’s recent spending strategy, but it’s older players who really scare the Sox. Depending on whether he exercises his right to opt out of a $13.5 million payment for 2020, Castillo will be 32 or 33 in his final season in Boston, the same age as (or a year older than) Craig will be in 2017, and younger than Victorino will be next year. If Castillo pans out, the Sox will mostly get his good years, at what the team believes will be a below-market rate.
So Everyone Agrees This Was a Smart Signing, Right?
Evaluators I spoke to were united in their praise of Castillo’s speed and athleticism, but not all of them see the same bat the Sox do.
“I didn’t see a guy that was an above-average player,” one international scouting director told me. “It’s hard for me to imagine him being as good as Cespedes. … I didn’t see that kind of upside on the guy. … I’m sure competition probably sealed the ultimate price, but you have to start somewhere, and for me to say he was even a $40 or a $50 million player would be not true.”
Said another international scouting director: “For me, he’s a backup outfielder, so I think they’re way out of line. He’s definitely a talented kid, don’t misunderstand me. I think that this guy’s got major league ability. But $72 million? … I’ve got to get an impact player for that kind of money.”
It’s worth remembering, though, that early opinions on Puig and Abreu were similarly mixed. One executive who spoke to Baseball America’s Ben Badler in 2012 called Puig’s seven-year, $42 million deal “crazy,” and not because he’d predicted it was about to become one of the team-friendliest contracts in the game. “The question around baseball is how the Dodgers could justify awarding such a lavish contract to a player who scouts consider more of a solid than a spectacular prospect,” Badler wrote then. Puig was particularly mysterious, since he hadn’t played for Cuba’s top national team and hadn’t conducted a proper workout for scouts, but when ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick spoke to scouts about Abreu last September, one called Kendrys Morales “a better hitter,” while another said, “I don’t think he’s going to hit a good hard fastball in.”4
Criticism of Castillo revolves around the same nitpicks people had about Puig and Abreu: a long swing and an undisciplined approach. However, in limited looks against mostly amateur competition, it’s hard to say whether a “slider-speed bat” (as some scouts initially labeled Abreu’s) is an inherent flaw or simply a response to slider-speed stuff, or whether a raw approach would improve with instruction and experience, as Puig’s and Abreu’s have.
Video helps make the looks a little less limited. Cuban baseball broadcasts are increasingly available online, and the Red Sox reportedly collected as much as they could. “I think it’s very useful, but you’ve still got to go see him,” the first scouting director said. “You’re not making a multimillion-dollar decision on video.”5
The second scouting director sounded more like Howard Beale: “TV doesn’t tell you a dang thing,” he said.
Statistics can also offer some insight, and Red Sox GM Ben Cherington told The Boston Herald that the Sox are “getting more and more precise” in their ability to interpret Serie Nacional stats. That increased precision must have resulted in a more optimistic output than the publicly available methods. Clay Davenport, a cofounder of Baseball Prospectus, translates Cuban stats into equivalent major league performance at his website based on how previous players’ performances have weathered the trip to the States. Using Davenport’s system, Abreu’s otherworldly slash line in 151 at-bats in his last Cuban season, .382/.527/.735, translated to .298/.393/.576 in the majors. Abreu’s actual slash line so far, .308/.366/.598, isn’t a perfect match, but it’s very similar in value. The same process performed on Castillo’s peak season produced only a .237/.276/.390 translation.
“I really do NOT like this move at all,” Davenport wrote via email. “Castillo’s stats from Cuba are not as good as other players who have come over, and he put them up at an older age.” As Davenport points out, Castillo had the lowest Serie Nacional walk rate (and the only sub-one walk to strikeout ratio) of the Cuban players mentioned so far, despite that age advantage.
Castillo’s translated BB:K ratio was 0.18, which would put him in a range that Davenport says “almost never has major league success.” Based only on Castillo’s age and stats, Davenport projects him to hit slightly worse than Sam Fuld. Of course, Castillo recorded those stats when his frame looked more like Fuld’s than it does today.
Even Red Sox sources acknowledged the big error bars on projections for players coming out of Cuba, citing the “gray area” surrounding the stats and scouting reports. However, much like the Yankees’ monitoring of Tanaka, Boston’s pursuit of Castillo stretches back well before most informed fans (and maybe many teams) had heard of him. The Sox reportedly saw him face international opponents in 2011 and 2012 (the last time he played in games), then sent eight scouts to his Miami workout, which preceded a private workout for team officials in Fort Myers. For some teams, that shared workout — in which Castillo took about 40 swings in the cage, then faced a live pitcher for roughly 25 more — was their only in-person look. For that reason, even the evaluators I spoke to who weren’t high on Castillo were quick to credit the Red Sox for doing their homework.
“There is no way I’m calling the Red Sox crazy for [signing Castillo], because they obviously have much better information than I did and a lot of teams did,” the first scouting director said.
So, How High Can Cuban Contracts Go?
We know that teams are gradually getting used to the idea of big contracts for Cuban players. But can the talent keep up?
“You don’t know the extent of how much talent they have on the island because we’re not allowed to scout that,” the second scouting director said. “To speculate on whether there’s going to be more signings or less, and the talent pool, you’re guessing.”
Nor do we know whether Cuba will further relax restrictions on its amateurs’ international play, whether MLB will change the way it defines unrestricted free agents to discourage smuggling, or whether the embargo will end. However, we can trust that Cuba isn’t about to stop producing players, even if there isn’t an inexhaustible supply of superstar-type talents.
“Whether we will see bigger contracts in the next few years depends on which players choose to leave the island,” Badler wrote via email. “The talent in Cuba has definitely thinned out in recent years, but there are players still in Cuba who would have a chance to get comparable or greater contracts than what Castillo agreed to, and the motivations for middlemen to get them off the island are greater than ever before.”6 Badler touts 19-year-old Yoan Moncada, while Jesse Sanchez, who covers the international market for MLB.com, mentions Yasmani Tomas. “[Tomas is] working on his paperwork and is probably a couple of months out,” Sanchez wrote via email. “He’ll also break the bank because he’s a slugger and a high-risk, high-reward type of guy.”
“I do think more contracts of this range will continue for the cap-exempt Cuban players,” a third international scouting director said via email. “There have been a lot of successful transitions into the major leagues, and until the first bad big contract occurs, I don’t foresee it coming down. These guys have shown a tremendous ability to adapt to the culture and to the playing level, so there isn’t much evidence to curtail the size of the contracts.”
Not all Cuban imports have panned out, and now that there’s more money involved, there’s eventually going to be a big bust. For now, though, copycat clubs are following the lead of the earlier adopters. By arriving late, these teams may have already missed out on the best players and sweetest deals, but there’s no shortage of knockoffs available.
“It’s already begun,” the first scouting director said. “You might not be hearing about it, because a lot of them aren’t making it Stateside or they aren’t big enough names, but I go down to the Dominican, and everybody’s got a Cuban [player] now. … The majority of them, I go, ‘Oh, yeah, I can get that guy from Tulane in the 22nd round for $1,000.’ And they want $600,000 for the guy because he’s [a Cuban player]. And if I were an agent showcasing these guys, I would be doing the same thing.”
It’s possible Abreu was the last Cuban bargain. We’ll soon see whether Castillo makes the bubble bigger or causes it to burst.