FORT MYERS, Fla. — Rusney Castillo vs. Mookie Betts? Does it really come down to this for the Red Sox? Is there another solution or answer? It can’t be that black and white, can it?
None of us knows how good Castillo and Betts will be as major leaguers. Even the greatest talent evaluators won’t be able to call that one for a while. We’re not talking about Alex Rodriguez/Ken Griffey Jr. can’t-miss-from-the-first-day-you-saw-them talent. But good things are projected for both.
With a $72.5 million contract over seven years and being older and more experienced at age 27, Castillo hopes to ride the Cuban defector wave in the United States and be as good as Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, and Jose Abreu, but who knows?
Betts is only 21 and he has had a pretty impressive season from Double A to Triple A and now in the majors. The kid is pretty exciting, with a little more power than someone of his size should have, to go with the ability to steal bases and play very well in center field for someone who has mostly manned second base in his career.
One can see the athleticism of Castillo. As we watched him in live action for the first time on Field 1 at JetBlue Park Sunday in hot, humid conditions, he had only two at-bats as the leadoff hitter against the Gulf Coast Yankees in the second game of the best-of-three championship series. But they were telling at-bats.
Castillo, the designated hitter, singled in his first at-bat through the shortstop hole, and one could see the speed and the power in his short, compact, muscular body. He took a nice, simple righthanded stance and swing.
Castillo, who said he hadn’t played in an organized game since July 2013 after he defected from Cuba, went 1 for 2 against Yankees righthander Luis Cedeno before a small crowd.
Castillo took a called third strike in his second at-bat, ending his first day back at live competition.
Castillo is expected to play center field and play 3-5 innings Monday in Tampa in the deciding game of the series after the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 6-5.
There also was a glimpse of Castillo on the basepaths. After his single, he sized up the pitcher, taking a big lead. He had to dive back on a pickoff throw.
He then took off on a hit and run, but the ball was fouled off. He then attempted his first stolen base but was gunned down on a nice throw by catcher Alvaro Noriega.
In that second at-bat, he swung and missed at a high fastball, popped back another fastball, and then took the called third strike on a pitch that looked a bit outside.
Castillo, wearing No. 38, seemed to get into the excitement of the game with his temporary teammates, who were vying for a title.
“Feels great, a good day,” said Castillo through Red Sox player development coordinator Laz Gutierrez, who said, “He’s wanted this day to come for a long time. He feels good physically and mentally.”
Castillo said he didn’t feel out of place as the leadoff hitter.
“Done this for a long time. Like riding a bike. Felt good and happy to be out there today,” he said.
Castillo said he likes to use his legs as a big part of his game, so he thought that if he got on he was going to try to make something happen.
Castillo looked to be in great shape, although there was no question he was knocking off some rust and getting used to fastballs in the mid-90s and offspeed sliders.
Betts is a small guy, too, but he is probably 30 pounds lighter and has a slighter build than Castillo. These are two different body types, but it seems the results of their games could be similar.
Castillo, like Betts, has played second base in the past.
The Red Sox are adamant that Castillo is a center fielder, just as they are adamant that Betts is one, too.
Yet there has to be a way of getting both in a future lineup. Starting out as an infielder, could Betts move to third base? Could he even be tried at shortstop?
And when Castillo arrives in Boston later in September, will he supplant Betts in center?
Surely, the Red Sox have had some hits and misses with their younger players this season. Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, and Allen Webster have missed, while Brock Holt, Anthony Ranaudo, and Betts have been hits.
There’s some thought that even with success, Betts should go back and put in another half-season or so at Triple A to refine in his game and ultimately find a position.
It’s also a possibility that Betts could be trade bait in a deal for a pitcher, or a deal for the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton.
The Red Sox don’t want to keep changing players’ positions. It hasn’t worked well for Bogaerts; to this day the Sox have no idea about his full-time position.
Obviously, given Castillo’s contract, which included a $5.4 million signing bonus and a $100,000 salary for the remainder of the season, he is assured of a spot in the Red Sox lineup next season.
“He loves to hit, but like any hitter he thinks all aspects he wants to improve on over time,” said Gutierrez, translating Castillo’s response about what he feels he needs to improve upon. “Getting on base and getting to use his legs is a big part of his game.”
Castillo said he is motivated by the success of fellow Cubans Puig, Cespedes, and Abreu.
“It’s definitely added a lot of confidence and motivated him,” Gutierrez said. “He wants his countrymen to do well and it’s definitely a motivating factor that’s helped him in his game.”
Castillo added that his main objective is to be the same player he’s always been.
Betts keeps impressing with the energy he brings to the team, his talent, and the big surprise he gives everyone when he hits a baseball.
There’s got to be room for both.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.