Talented players from Cuba have helped transform baseball in recent years as Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman, and Yasiel Puig quickly rose to All-Star status.
Until Friday, the Red Sox had stayed on the sidelines for the influx, making only smaller investments in younger players such as Jose Iglesias. That changed with the bold signing of outfielder Rusney Castillo to a seven-year, $72.5 million deal.
It is a record deal for an international free agent.
The 27-year-old Castillo was sought by a number of teams. Some, like the Detroit Tigers, had designs on him affecting the pennant race. But the last-place Red Sox were the most aggressive as they continued to remake a lineup last in the American League in runs scored.
Castillo will have a physical in Boston on Saturday, but team sources confirmed a deal is in place. Castillo is eligible to join the Sox immediately but has not played competitively in more than a year since defecting and presumably will need time to prepare.
At 5 feet 9 inches and 205 pounds, Castillo is a righthanded hitter more reliant on speed than power, but he does have extra-base pop in his bat according to scouts who watched his showcase workout July 26 at the University of Miami. He also is solid defensively.
“Above-average speed. Can play center field or right field. What kind of power? What kind of average? Obviously our scouts liked him enough. That’s a significant investment,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell.
“It’s an exciting athletic player by all accounts.”
The Red Sox held a private workout for Castillo in Florida on Aug. 1 attended by general manager Ben Cherington. The team was impressed and started working diligently to sign him.
Castillo’s contract, with an average annual value of $10.35 million, was heavily back-loaded. That helps the Red Sox for luxury tax purposes.
At the same time, Castillo received a larger overall deal than the $68 million Abreu received from the Chicago White Sox last winter. That was considered important to his representatives at Roc Nation Sports, the agency owned by music mogul Jay-Z.
Bidding by the Tigers, Phillies, Giants, and Mariners helped drive the price up.
Castillo played five seasons for Ciego de Avila in Cuba’s top league and was impressive playing for Cuba’s team in the 2011 World Cup tournament in Panama. He was excluded from the 2013 World Baseball Classic because of a suspension likely related to his trying to defect.
Castillo is described as a high-energy player comparable with Shane Victorino in his prime or Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner. The success other Cubans have had in the majors helped convince the Red Sox to make the move.
“That’s the one thing that stands out more than anything. When you look at Yoenis’s performance right away in Oakland, Abreu in Chicago. Hopefully the same holds true for every other player that comes over,” Farrell said.
“When you look at how many games they play on the international stage and the talent in which they play against, just by nature they’re seemingly a very strong group physically and they’re able to transition and handle the wear and tear of a long season.”
Because of his base-stealing ability and what was a high on-base percentage during his time in Cuba, Castillo could become a leadoff hitter.
By signing Castillo, the Red Sox have added to what is already a crowded outfield. Along with Cespedes and Victorino, the Sox have Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Craig, Brock Holt, and Daniel Nava.
But that depth is somewhat deceiving. Cespedes and Victorino are signed only through 2015. Bradley and Betts are unproven on the major league level and Holt profiles more as a super-utility player.
It’s also uncertain at this point whether Victorino will be ready for spring training after undergoing back surgery this month.
There are medical concerns for Craig as well. He has not been the same hitter since tearing a ligament in his left foot last season.
The Red Sox seem sure to use their organizational pitching and outfield depth to address other needs on the trade market this winter.
“Ben’s goal is to build the most talented and deep roster as possible. However that comes about, we’ll figure it out as we go,” Farrell said.
Change is needed. Red Sox outfielders have hit only .242 this season with 17 home runs and 22 stolen bases. It is one of the least productive groups in team history.
“I like that we’re taking chances,” Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said. “Abreu could have been here. This guy [Castillo] must be good with what they paid him.
“We’ll see what he does, but we’re getting more talent. The more you get, the better we’ll be. I’m working overtime on my career. I want to get another ring before I’m done.”
In acquiring Cespedes and Craig on July 31, the Red Sox got a head start on rebuilding. The addition of Castillo adds to that process.
“Maybe we’re leaning a little heavy on the righthanded side. But prior to Opening Day next year there’s a lot of time and I know a lot of thought will be put into how we continue to improve this team” Farrell said.
The Red Sox also know the free-agent market this winter is thin on premier bats.
“There’s a clear-cut plan with the retooling of this roster,” Farrell said.
The Sox felt comfortable that Castillo would make a quick transition to the major leagues. With 34 games remaining this season, he could get a head start.
“Certainly would be helpful in him getting to know whether it’s a given ballpark, a given city, all those things can only help,” Farrell said.Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.