The Red Sox unveiled Rusney Castillo after Saturday afternoon’s hideous loss to the Seattle Mariners, putting a stamp on the signing that change is necessary and the roster must be upgraded.
The Sox had dabbled in Cuba before with younger players such as Jose Iglesias, but outfielder Castillo is the first of the veterans who have come to the United States in recent years whom they have signed.
The Sox traded for Yoenis Cespedes on July 31, so now the team will have two Cuban outfielders and likely top-four hitters in the lineup for at least 2015. (Cespedes can become a free agent after next season.)
Castillo, 27, dressed in a gray suit with purple shirt, met his new teammates before the game Saturday and also posed with Seattle second baseman Robinson Cano, his fellow Roc Sports Nation client.
The game plan is for Castillo to head back to his temporary home in Miami, then await marching orders to Fort Myers for workouts.
Sox general manager Ben Cherington said the team must work on securing a work visa before Castillo can take part in minor league games. After a few of those, Cherington expects to see Castillo in a Red Sox uniform, wearing No. 38 and playing center field.
Castillo, who officially signed a seven-year, $72.5 million deal Saturday, received a $5.4 million signing bonus and $100,000 for the rest of the 2014 season. From 2015-17, he will make $10.5 million per year, and he will earn $11 million in 2018 and 2019. Castillo can opt out after the 2019 season; if he doesn’t, he will earn $13.5 million in 2020.
“He’s a center fielder and he’s got a lot of skills,” Cherington said. “We think he can impact the game in a number of different ways. He runs well, has a good solid average throwing arm, good power, can play strong defense, and has a good offensive track record in Cuba and international play.
“We see him as a very good major league player and part of a winning team. As you [media] guys know, we’ve always felt you need two center fielders on the team.”
Castillo, at 5 feet 9 inches and 205 pounds, has a Rickey Henderson body, a Ron Gant-type frame. Giants general manager Brian Sabean, who was in the hunt for Castillo, described him as a classic leadoff hitter and center fielder.
This, folks, is Jacoby Ellsbury’s replacement.
The Sox fended off several teams, including the Tigers, who dropped out Friday. But Cherington never felt he had secured Castillo until “we came to a verbal agreement and started looking into flights,’’ he said.
“There was a number of teams involved. I felt it was competitive, but a professional process. I felt like — and I can only speak for the Red Sox — but I felt we were given every opportunity to make the offers we felt we needed to make.
“We wanted to sign him, obviously, and ultimately we felt good about the outcome.”
The Sox put the full-court press on Castillo. They had followed him since Amsterdam in 2011 and Taiwan in 2012. They had eight scouts watch his workouts in Miami and they had vice president of player personnel Allard Baird on him since he left Cuba.
One American League GM said, “The Red Sox were not going to be denied.”
Castillo, a righthanded hitter, hasn’t played for a year and half. There’s concern. There’s risk. But neither side feels it will be an issue when all is said and done.
“To me, at this point, it’s not about the time missed, because even though I’ve missed a year and half of games, I’ve been training every day and that’s what got me most prepared on a day-to-day basis,” said Castillo, through interpreter Adrian Lorenzo.
Castillo crowds out Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts. It also turns Shane Victorino, recovering from back surgery, into a backup. It makes Daniel Nava redundant.
The Red Sox have a lot of trade chips now.
Nava is a player many teams want. Could Mike Napoli be expendable if Allen Craig moves to first? The Sox would certainly have chips galore in trying to make a big deal for Phillies ace Cole Hamels or Miami slugger Giancarlo Stanton.
Cherington not only has to revamp the offense, but the pitching staff. Would this signing have taken place if the Sox had not been so woeful offensively?
“It wouldn’t have changed our evaluation of him,” Cherington said Castillo. “You make decisions based on the information you have at the time. And we think we all know we’re trying to build a winning team as quickly as we can and we feel confident we can do that. We felt Rusney would be a big part of that.
“Obviously, this is a long-term commitment. This is not a decision that’s being made about next week or next April, this is someone we think will be a core part of our team for a long time and who we hope he’ll be part of a talented roster in short term.”
We’ll have to see how good Castillo is after not playing since his defection.
“We’ve had several scouts see him over a number of years and built some history that way,” Cherington said. “You can recognize the bat speed, the swing path, the power, the ball comes off his bat well. We’ve had quite a bit of time with him, have performance data out of Cuba. We feel we’re more precise in our ability to translate that, where there have been recent examples of mature high-profile guys coming out of Cuba. We have seen what those transitions have looked like. You put it all together and we’re able to make an assessment of what we think he can be.
“Obviously by the [financial] commitment, we think he can be a really good player for us for a long time.”
Castillo said all of the right things. Asked what it means to play for the Sox, he said, “It allows me to be a part of such a historical organization and I’m just ecstatic to be here.
“It’s a dream come true to have been given this opportunity to play because of the success of recent Cuban players. It’s an honor and privilege.”
As a kid in Cuba he said he wasn’t able to be much of a fan, but as he grew older, “the Red Sox were one of the more popular franchises and a team I would follow more than others.”
He said he did not speak with Cespedes during the process, but did Saturday.
“He’s a player I’ve admired for a long time and I’m happy to be a member of the Red Sox with him,” Castillo said.
Cespedes did offer advice concerning the difference between baseball in Cuba and the United States.
“He made me aware that this is the same game we played in Cuba, it’s just success will come down working [and] grinding on a day-to-day level,” Castillo said.
Cherington said the Red Sox did their due diligence, trying to get as much information on him as possible.
“Any time we’re going to consider a commitment of this kind, we would want to consider the person as much as the player. We feel we were able to do that thanks to [his agents] and we had good access, a collaborative effort, and we got to know Rusney,’’ said Cherington.
“We do our due diligence like we do on any player. Anything that came back on Rusney from any one we talked to, people who have been around him and talked to him, was very positive This is a young man who loves to play baseball. A competitor. Someone we thought would fit well in our organization.”
The Sox took the plunge, staying within the confines of what they believe — that signing players under the age of 30 to long-term deals is good business.