After a showcase on Saturday at the University of Miami, the market for 27-year-old Cuban free agent Rusney Castillo is beginning to shape itself, with a contract likely coming in the next two weeks.
According to conversations with several sources, Castillo has private showcases scheduled with at least three teams: the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies. More workouts could happen, but given that there are teams are interested in signing Castillo quickly to help them down the stretch, there probably won't be too many more private showings before he signs. Castillo is represented by Roc Nation Sports, a joint venture between Roc Nation and CAA Sports, though they declined to confirm or deny which teams had private workouts scheduled with Castillo.
Multiple sources at Castillo's showcase said the team with the biggest presence at the event was the Red Sox. Boston's .666 OPS among outfielders ranks 28th in Major League Baseball, with .219/.300/.313 production from center field (also 28th in OPS) a major contributor. Even so, Jackie Bradley's spectacular center field defense has led to 2.0 Wins Above Replacement (per Baseball-Reference.com), and there's more upside at the plate for the 24-year-old rookie. The organization's best prospect, Mookie Betts, is a natural second baseman who won't play there with Dustin Pedroia in Boston. Most of Betts' playing time in Triple-A Pawtucket has been in center field.
Castillo has played right field in Cuba, and with the large ground to cover in Fenway Park, he could intrigue the Red Sox there. Castillo is 5-foot-9, 205 pounds (up about 20 pounds since he left Cuba), and while he has a more aggressive hitting approach than the Red Sox typically bite on, they haven't shied away from shorter players, with Pedroia, Betts, Bradley, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava and Brock Holt all on their major league roster this season. When they won the World Series last year, it was Victorino and Nava who received the majority of the team's plate appearances in right and left field, respectively.
One of the largest scouting contingents at the showcase belonged to the Phillies, who are scheduled to see Castillo tomorrow. It's hard to peg the Phillies in the Cuban market, given their bizarre initial agreement of six years, $48 million for Cuban righthander Miguel Gonzalez, which later was reduced to a four-year, $12 million deal. It's believed the Phillies' top brass became enamored with Gonzalez when they saw him after he left Cuba, which means they could be a team swayed by strong workouts in the United States. With the Phillies using light-hitting Ben Revere as their center fielder, the Phillies are getting a .670 OPS from their center fielders this season, which ranks 23rd in MLB. The upgrade potential here is obvious.
The Yankees have Jacoby Ellsbury signed through the next six seasons, so Castillo wouldn't displace him in center field. Castillo might fit in a corner—the Yankees aren't afraid to go with speed-oriented players there—but where he might be more intriguing for them is if they think he can play second base, where the Yankees have mostly used 36-year-old Brian Roberts in their first year since Robinson Cano left for Seattle.
Castillo's best position is center field, where he has good instincts and takes advantage of his 70 speed on the 20-80 scale. Back in 2009-10, however, Castillo played 26 games at second base and seven at third, before he became a full-time outfielder, winning a gold glove in 2011-12. Since leaving Cuba, Castillo has been working both in the infield and the outfield, although scouts who saw Castillo take infield on Saturday didn't seem enthusiastic about his chances to play there.
In Triple-A, the Yankees have 23-year-old Rob Refsnyder, who has hit well this year but would need to improve to get to get to adequate defender at second. Refsnyder himself is a former outfielder who the Yankees drafted out of Arizona in 2012, then moved to second base last year, although he's split time between second and right field the last two weeks. So not only are his defensive struggles are understandable, but moving a guy from the outfield to second base wouldn't be unprecedented for the Yankees.
Moving a Cuban player from the outfield to the infield wouldn't be a first, either. During Alexei Ramirez's final two seasons in Cuba, he played primarily center field for Pinar Del Rio, with just four innings in two years at shortstop, though he did play a little bit of second and third base. The White Sox signed Ramirez and immediately made him their major league shortstop. While he struggled there initially (Ultimate Zone Rating on FanGraphs pegged him as a -8 defender, while Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved has him at -10), he quickly became one of the best defensive shortstops in the American League. But Castillo has a more bulked-up body type and doesn't have Ramirez's fluid infield actions.
Taking an outfielder and moving him to second base worked for the Indians when they drafted Jason Kipnis out of Arizona State and put him at second base, but Kipnis had time to learn the position in the minors and only cost Cleveland $575,000. Given that Castillo hasn't played the infield in four years, that scouts have only seen him in the outfield during international tournaments and that he would need to play the position immediately at the major league level, it would take a bold team to sign him with the intention of putting him at second base.
The White Sox, Mariners, Giants, Blue Jays, Cubs and Braves are other teams who have popped up as potential fits for Castillo, according to industry sources. Few teams are as comfortable in the Cuban market as the White Sox, who signed Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo and, of course, Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million contract this offseason. Having Cuban players won't have any influence over where Castillo signs—money, as usual, will determine the winner. But Castillo fits the athletic mold that the White Sox's scouts have targeted in the draft and the international level in recent years. With the White Sox getting a .674 OPS from their center fielders (21st in baseball), Castillo could help the White Sox upgrade their outfield for next season, along with the return of Avisail Garcia to right field, even if 2014 isn't the year for them to contend.
The Mariners have been one of the surprise teams of the 2014 season, on the cusp of a wild card spot despite an offense that ranks below league average in runs per game and most park-adjusted metrics. The team is giving most of its playing time to James Jones in center field and Dustin Ackley in left, with a .583 OPS from center field (last in baseball) and .654 from left field (24th in MLB). Outfield is an obvious area where Seattle can upgrade, without surrendering prospects.
Toronto is in the playoff hunt and has Colby Rasmus, a free agent after this season, giving them mediocre performance after a strong 2013 season. They also have a desire to upgrade at second base. Atlanta's center field hole is obvious—a .619 OPS ranks 27th in baseball—with B.J. Upton still on the hook for three years, $46.35 million after this season.
Castillo's athletic, toolsy profile fits what the Giants have gone after in the international market. They could use an upgrade in the outfield while they push for a playoff spot, while second base has been a hole for the team this season. Sources said the Giants were among the teams with a strong presence at the showcase on Saturday, and given that reports have them pegged to Ben Zobrist, Castillo makes some sense for them, especially given that their farm system is thin.
The Cubs had a team of evaluators in to see Castillo as well. While the Cubs have a terrible major league team, Castillo fits what the Cubs need in several areas. They have the game's best farm system, with young, core talent heavy on position players, especially in the infield. The Cubs have a .602 OPS from their center fielders, second-worst in MLB. With 22-year-old Arismendy Alcantara getting called up to split time between center field and second base, the Cubs have at least one option there for the future. Albert Almora is in Double-A, and while there are reasons to think he can rebound, he has scuffled this season and seen his stock drop. The front office has shown a desire to push for players in their prime years who can help them now and long-term (they made a push to sign Hyun-Jin Ryu and Masahiro Tanaka), so Castillo could fit into that category for them.