Defection Of Top Cuban Outfielder Rusney Castillo Could Shake Up Free Agent Market

Another one of Cuba’s best players has left the island, the latest in a wave of defections that isn’t expected to slow down.

Rusney Castillo, a 26-year-old center fielder who had been one of the top players in Cuba, has left the country to pursue a contract with a major league team, Baseball America has learned.

Castillo has played five seasons for Ciego de Avila in Cuba’s top league, Serie Nacional, so he will be able to sign as a free agent exempt from the international signing bonus pools.

That process could still take several months, since Castillo will have to establish residency in another country, have Major League Baseball declare him a free agent and the U.S. government’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) clear him to sign. Once that process is complete, Castillo should draw interest as a free agent who could either go straight to the majors or get a tuneup in Triple-A before moving up.

Castillo is short but has a strong, athletic frame at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds. His best tool is his speed, as he’s an above-average runner and one of the better base stealers in Cuba. More of a doubles hitter than a big home run threat, Castillo puts a charge into the ball with a line-drive righthanded swing, though he can get long to the ball at times and some scouts think he’s prone to chasing pitches off the plate. Primarily a center fielder in Cuba, Castillo has also played some second and third base, so his versatility could be a draw for some teams. He’s an aggressive, high-energy player, though some teams see him as a fourth outfielder.

When Yoenis Cespedes was in Cuba, Cespedes was the star center fielder on the Cuban national team, with Leonys Martin the up-and-comer. With Cespedes and Martin gone, Castillo stepped in as Cuba’s national team center fielder at the World Cup in October 2011 in Panama. Castillo was a standout at the tournament, hitting .512/.524/.854 in 10 games, going 21-for-41 with two home runs, two triples, four doubles, one walk and two strikeouts. He made the tournament’s all-star team after leading the World Cup in batting average and slugging while ranking fourth in on-base percentage.

Castillo was coming off an excellent year in Serie Nacional in 2010-11 in which he led the league with 29 stolen bases in 35 attempts and hit .324/.373/.555 with 18 home runs in 400 plate appearances.

In 2011-12, Castillo hit .332/.395/.545 in 420 plate appearances, belting 16 home runs with 32 walks, 42 strikeouts and 22 stolen bases in 29 attempts. He led the league with 28 doubles, ranked 13th in batting average and tied for third in the league in steals. Last season was a down year for Castillo, however, as he hit .274/.377/.399 in 68 games.

The last time scouts could have seen Castillo outside of Cuba was in November 2012, when Castillo traveled to Taiwan and Japan for some exhibition games with the team that Cuba ended up sending to the World Baseball Classic in March. When the final WBC rosters were released, Castillo was a notable omission, with Cuba opting to bring 22-year-old Guillermo Heredia as its center fielder instead.

Before Castillo left the island, a statement released by Cuba’s National Information Agency from Victor Cuesta, the baseball commissioner of Ciego de Avila, noted that Castillo was suspended from the national team for a “violation of the code of ethics of revolutionary baseball.” In other words, Castillo was likely suspended for trying to defect. He was not playing in Serie Nacional this season due to his suspension, so his decision to leave Cuba wasn’t a surprise to international scouts.

Scouts would have been able to see Castillo and the rest of his teammates at the World Baseball Challenge in Canada in August, but Castillo wasn’t allowed to travel with the team. Scouts did see Castillo in July 2012 at Haarlem Baseball Week in the Netherlands, where he hit .333 (9-for-27) with no extra-base hits, one walk and no strikeouts.

Castillo also played in a five-game exhibition series in Nicaragua in June 2012. Castillo also faced the U.S. college national team in July 2012, although American scouts weren’t able to evaluate him in person because the games were in Cuba. Against a team that included N.C. State lefthander Carlos Rodon along with 2013 first-rounders Marco Gonzales (Cardinals) and Jonathon Crawford (Tigers), Castillo went 4-for-24 with a home run, no walks and five strikeouts for a .167/.167/.292 slash line.

In October 2011, Castillo played in the Pan American Games in Mexico, where he hit .273/.333/.318 by going 6-for-22 with a double, two walks and three strikeouts. Castillo also played in the World Port Tournament in the Netherlands in June 2011.

The word in international circles is that Castillo is in the Dominican Republic and will be represented by Adam Katz of Wasserman Media Group.