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Nick Cafardo | On baseball

Rusney Castillo is still a big, expensive question mark for the Red Sox

Rusney Castillo, who seems in line to start the season in left field, missed time this spring due to illness.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

FORT MYERS, Fla. — When the media gathers around Rusney Castillo, it’s usually after an injury or illness. The dialogue usually involves phrases such as “How do you feel?” and “When are you coming back?” and usually nothing about any great play or big hit by him.

After missing four days with the flu, Castillo was back on the field Saturday.

To say Castillo has been snakebit since he signed a seven-year, $72.5 million deal two years ago would be an understatement. We still have no idea how good of a player he is or how good he will be. We still think, at age 28, Castillo has time to show what all the fuss was about as he came out of Cuba and had multiple teams trying to obtain him.


But we haven’t seen that player. We’ve seen glimpses of a guy who has five tools. There’s no doubt he has them, but they haven’t all come out at once. Sometimes a few come out. Sometimes one or two come out. Sometimes none.

Everybody wants to be fair to him. Nobody wants to use “bust” on him because until we see a representative number of games, it’s hard to judge. We understand the issues of a Cuban player and the adaptation to the new lifestyle, as well as the language barrier he has to overcome.

You can tell Castillo wants to be good. He wants to show he was worth the fuss about him. There’s no doubt he loves the game. He works hard. He tries to get better.

There have been obstacles he’s had to overcome. But every time he’s faced with one, it’s time off his clock.

Does he have a long leash or a short leash? Who knows? The Red Sox did sign veteran outfielder Chris Young. They also have Brock Holt who can play the outfield. They will try Travis Shaw there as well. If things don’t look good early, is he on the bench, an expensive fourth outfielder? He is not assured of anything.


Mookie Betts will likely play right with Jackie Bradley Jr. in center and Castillo in left, at least to start the season.

“The goal is to stay healthy,” Castillo said through an interpreter. “Last year, the injuries hampered me a little bit. I feel good now, but frustrating not being able to come to camp. I’m excited to be working out with the team.”

Some have wondered if he’s too bulked up, too tight. Many of the Cuban players bulked up for their showcases and then kept up the bodybuilding. He’s definitely very strong with thick muscular legs and arms. Too much?

He says he wants to play a lot, but if he pops a hammy or a calf or something, there goes his game. Castillo should steal bases and hit for some power. As we mentioned, there are five tools in there somewhere.

“If I stay healthy, I run well, swing the bat well, and play well in the field,” he said.

He has seen Cuban counterparts — Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, and Jose Abreu, in particular — enjoy success. Cespedes just inked a three-year, $75 million deal with the Mets. Abreu has been one of the game’s most consistent hitters.

The Red Sox were runners-up on Abreu and then overcompensated and signed Castillo the following year. Castillo is already a wealthy player, but there’s a pride factor involved in living up to a contract. There’s no doubt that Boston paid Castillo to be an All-Star player, not a reserve. They paid him to do extraordinary things on the field and spend less time off of it.


Now he will be asked to be the left fielder.

Castillo is a very good outfielder, with center being his best position, but Bradley is probably the best defensively in baseball so Castillo has to move. Castillo took to it very well last season. He’s OK with that.

He got experience playing the Wall at Fenway last season. He’ll get to play the Wall at JetBlue Park for the remainder of spring training, so that should help. Nobody’s worried about Castillo in left. He’s no Hanley Ramirez in that regard. He’s part of one of the best defensive outfields in baseball.

The question is his offense.

And we still don’t know what he is. Is he a speed guy who can hit home runs? Is he a pure hitter who can do a little of everything?

He talked about how the rest of the league made adjustments against him last season. He said he studied the video and he’s going to be able to turn the tables against pitchers this season. He said he made adjustments in his workout regimen so that he’s better able to prevent injuries, though he wouldn’t say what the changes were.


So Castillo is back. Manager John Farrell said he made it through all the drills with no problem and ran well.

For his sake, Castillo needs to play every day and show he can be a healthy player. Show who he is, once and for all.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.