The Red Sox weren’t alone in their desire to sign Rusney Castillo in 2014. The Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Phillies, and San Francisco Giants submitted bids for the free agent outfielder, as did at least two other teams.
The surprising part was how much the Sox were willing to pay to land a player other teams viewed as more of a complementary piece than a star.
Castillo’s seven-year, $72.5 million deal was $4.5 million more than the Chicago White Sox paid to sign Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu 10 months earlier, and a whopping $30.5 million beyond what the Los Angeles Dodgers paid for outfielder Yasiel Puig in 2012.
“We didn’t offer him that,” said Dave Dombrowski, who was general manager of the Tigers at the time.
Just how wrong the Red Sox were about Castillo came into sharp focus Monday when he cleared waivers and was outrighted off the major league roster to Triple A Pawtucket.
Dombrowski, now the Red Sox president of baseball operations, was left to explain the mistake made by former general manager Ben Cherington.
“It’s pretty simple: It’s the offensive production aspect of it,” Dombrowski said. “He’s a good defensive outfielder; he’s got a good arm; he runs well; he has power, although it hasn’t come into play in the game. But he really hasn’t hit on a consistent basis. So that’s what it really comes down to.”
By any measure, Castillo represents one of the most expensive errors in team history. He has hit .262 with a .679 OPS in 99 major league games over parts of three seasons. A player Cherington said would bring power and speed to the lineup has contributed seven home runs and seven stolen bases.
Castillo turns 29 next month and the odds of improvement are slim at this stage of his career.
By passing Castillo through waivers, the Sox open a spot on the 40-man roster for a more capable player. His salary also no longer counts against Major League Baseball’s Competitive Balance Tax.
Castillo’s contract is backloaded, making it even more onerous for the Red Sox. He is due $6.03 million for the remainder of this season, $10.5 million in 2017, $11 million in 2018, $11 million in 2019, and $13.5 million in 2020.
The Sox went through the same process with first baseman Allen Craig a year ago.
Like Castillo, Craig was another pricey mistake of the Cherington era. Craig is being paid $9 million this season and is owed $11 million in 2017, which includes a $1 million buyout of his $13 million option for 2018.
The Red Sox traded for Craig on July 31, 2014, and signed Castillo 23 days later. The two players, who will ultimately cost the Red Sox $102,354,938, have combined to hit .218.
There was no benefit in releasing Castillo, as the Sox would have still been responsible for his salary outside of the prorated major league minimum if another team signed him.
“You’d rather have him down playing [in the minors] and hope that he turns it around,” Dombrowski said. “You’re paying his salary, so you’re much better off having him play Triple A.”
The Red Sox went to spring training in 2015 and again this season intending for Castillo to emerge as their left fielder.
Injuries hampered his progress last season, and this year he was outplayed by Brock Holt and lost the job.
“The natural question would be, what happened? There are guys who moved ahead of him, and that’s the bottom line,” manager John Farrell said.
Said Dombrowski: “He’s tried. It’s not that he hasn’t tried. When he was here [last] September, he showed flashes. . . . It just really is going to come down to how he would hit.”
At 5 feet 9 inches and a well-muscled 196 pounds, Castillo looks the part of a major league outfielder and it’s easy to understand how the Sox were fooled by the two workouts they watched in 2014.
After being just outbid for Abreu, the Sox went all-in on Castillo even though their in-person scouting consisted only of a handful of international games he played with the Cuban national team.
“He was a highly touted individual coming out of Cuba. We all know that the scouting there is a little bit different than other areas,” Dombrowski said. “It’s not one when you’re out there and looking at guys day in and day out. . . . In Abreu’s [case] it worked out, and in this case it didn’t work out. There’s definitely more risk.”
In the majors, Castillo has been overmatched by fastballs because of a long swing. Against fastballs, he swings and misses close to 40 percent of the time.
The all-or-nothing approach, while surely impressive in a workout setting, was quickly exposed in competition.
“Pitchers tend to find the hole in your swing,” Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis said. “He’s got all the tools it takes to be successful in the big leagues. But he’s got to make a swing change. When your swing is that long, it creates holes.”
It’s not a question of work ethic or makeup. Farrell said Castillo worked hard with the coaches, something Davis confirmed. But the home run derby-type swings have yet to change.
“I love the kid to death. He just needs to grasp the concept of a short swing a little more,” Davis said. “He needs to listen to one person, and that person he listens to has to be somebody who sees him day in a day out, not somebody from afar.”
Vice president of player personnel Allard Baird, who oversaw the evaluation of Castillo, declined to comment on the process, saying Dombrowski should speak for the organization.
“He’s a good baseball man,” Dombrowski said. “These situations, scouting those players, can be difficult. This is where we are.”