At the start of spring training, Rusney Castillo seemingly stood atop the mount. The Red Sox’ primary left field job was his to lose.
Over the intervening 100 or so days, he not only got knocked off the summit but has since been covered by an avalanche of outfielders, behind Brock Holt and Chris Young but also Blake Swihart, with the possibility that Andrew Benintendi could leapfrog him before the end of the year.
Given the expectations that accompanied Castillo signing a seven-year, $72.5 million deal, it’s shocking to see how quickly he’s disappeared from view. That Castillo — now in the third season of that deal – is still patrolling the outfield for Triple A Pawtucket is in many ways dizzying.
“I don’t think about that at all. I just focus on my work here. I’d love an opportunity in the big leagues, but it’s pointless for me to focus on those kinds of things,” Castillo said through translator Will Fleming. “Every day I work hard, focus on that day. I always think I’m a big leaguer.”
There are moments when he looks the part, as on Thursday, when he unloaded on a hanging curveball and sent it soaring over the fence in deep left-center for a homer as part of a 2-for-5 day. That sort of impact offered a reminder both of the dynamic player the Red Sox thought they were signing in 2014, and of the infrequency with which they’ve seen that performer.
When the Red Sox signed Castillo, they saw a player capable of hitting for average, playing above-average defense in center, hitting for power, and impacting the game with his legs. That outlook gained validation in Castillo’s impressive big league debut in September 2014 — at a time when he was still adjusting to pro ball with few expectations for immediate performance — but only sporadically since.
“He played freely up there [in 2014],” PawSox manager Kevin Boles said, recalling the power Castillo showed in flashes that September. “We haven’t seen the impact [this year]. The numbers state that. We’ve seen doubles power. We’ve seen that. But as far as impact, you can look at the line and there are no home runs. We’re not looking for that, though.”
Hours later, Castillo had his first homer since Aug. 24. The blast boosted his line to a still-modest .254 average with a .310 OBP and .331 slugging mark along with eight extra-base hits in 142 plate appearances.
Perhaps the performance will represent a starting point for Castillo to go on a run.
“I think if he just plays freely and relaxed, I think you’d start to see a little bit more come out of his ability. The ability is there. It’s just, how does he handle the effort level?” said Boles. “We put him in the leadoff spot to get him to see a few more pitches, go ahead and set the tone, play fast. The other day, he saw 43 pitches in one game. Obviously, you’re going to get a lot more information that way. Then we’ve seen games where he’s been aggressive and gone 10-12 pitches throughout a game in that same spot.
“What we’re trying to see is a little more consistency as far as the approach. The effort level is what needs to be under control. It ticks up quite a bit sometimes.”
Perhaps that is simply a reflection of who Castillo is as a hitter, and of an offensive style that worked in Cuba but hasn’t translated against better pitching in Triple A and the big leagues. Perhaps it reflects the hidden pressures of a player trying to perform to expectations.
Either way, Castillo remains in Triple A. He’s drawn praise for working hard rather than complaining in the face of being bypassed for promotions. Still, he’s in a place that neither he nor the Red Sox could have imagined when they signed him.
“Work hard every day and there will be an opportunity,” said Castillo. “I just focus on each day here in Triple A and I’ll get back to the big leagues.”
Minor league pitching coordinator Ralph Treuel spent part of the week in Asheville, N.C., where he saw Single A Greenville righthanders Roniel Raudes and Anderson Espinoza turn in back-to-back starts of six shutout innings. Raudes struck out eight and walked none over 78 pitches, and Espinoza punched out three, including a looking strikeout on a 97-mile-per-hour heater to punctuate a seemingly effortless 67-pitch start.
Raudes and Espinoza are the first Sox pitchers playing for a full-season affiliate in their age 18 seasons since John Curtice pitched for Single A Michigan in 1998. Treuel had never seen a pair of Red Sox 18-year-olds in a full-season rotation, let alone pitching six shutout innings.
“It’s really unusual,” said Treuel. “You’re turning back the clock to basically 25 years ago where you may have seen that in A ball.”
The lanky Raudes is 5-1 with a 2.61 ERA, 9.0 strikeouts and 1.9 walks per nine innings, with a fastball that has touched 93 but has recently topped out closer to 90. Espinoza, 3-4 with a 3.86 ERA, 10.2 strikeouts and 2.9 walks per nine.
The Sox felt both were ready for the challenge of a full season where they are three years younger than the average hitter. Yet the Sox will mind their workloads.
“We want them to face better competition, but they can’t have the workload of a 21-year-old,” said Treuel. “They’ll get to anywhere from 100 to 110 innings probably this year. That would set them up for 135 next year.”
Dialing it up
PawSox righthander Pat Light recently turned heads when his game-ending fastball registered at 101 m.p.h. on the stadium scoreboard. “It caught our attention, too,” said Boles. Since his return to Pawtucket from his first big league call-up, the righthander has allowed three runs in 10 innings (2.70 ERA) with 11 strikeouts but seven walks. He’s held opponents to a .184 average and .210 slugging mark in that time . . . Double A Portland righthander Chandler Shepherd is viewed as a potential bullpen contributor. In 22⅔ innings, Shepherd has a 2.38 ERA with 11.5 strikeouts and 3.2 walks per nine innings . . . High Single A righthander Ben Taylor has been up to 97 m.p.h. while posting a 1.42 ERA with 21 strikeouts and four walk in 19 innings since his full-time move to the bullpen . . . Lefthander Henry Owens’s fastball difficulties have only worsened since he was sent back to Pawtucket. On Thursday, he walked five, hit three batters, and allowed a homer while throwing just 45 of 90 pitches for strikes. His fastball averaged 88 m.p.h.