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Rusney Castillo looks ready for the majors, but there’s a catch

Rusney Castillo is hitting .325 in Pawtucket this season but he hasn’t seen the major leagues in two years.kelly o’connor/pawtucket red sox

The drive is up to an hour in traffic, but Rusney Castillo rarely takes more than 40-45 minutes to get to McCoy Stadium from Boston. At this point, he knows the traffic patterns too well to get stuck in bumper-to-bumper commutes.

It has been more than two years since Castillo played a big league game for the Boston Red Sox. Since the 31-year-old was taken off the team’s 40-man roster and assigned outright to Pawtucket in June 2016, the haul from his Boston residence to Rhode Island has become a staple of his existence.

It would be hard to blame Castillo if he bemoaned his commute. Instead, he views it as a valuable reminder of his purpose.


“I live in Boston for a reason,” Castillo said through PawSox broadcaster Will Flemming. “My mentality every day is that I’m a big leaguer and I belong there. I never want to leave Boston because I know I belong there. I’m firmly confident I’ll be a big leaguer again soon.”

The self-assessment isn’t a delusion. Evaluators inside and outside the Red Sox organization see a player with big league tools who, in a vacuum, wouldn’t have a hard time finding a big league job as a fourth outfielder or platoon option. On the right team, he might even get the chance to start.

Castillo is performing like someone who, in the words of one AL scout, “can help a lot of clubs.” He’s hitting .325/.367/.425 in 106 Triple A games this year, including a .366/.423/.465 line since the All-Star break. The hitter who lost his spot on the 40-man roster because he chased everything and seemingly hit nothing but ground balls has gotten his swing under control, improving his pitch recognition while shooting liners from gap to gap.

“This is by far the best I’ve ever been,” said Castillo. “I’m much better than when I was in the big leagues.”


Inside the PawSox clubhouse, Castillo earns raves for his professionalism. Pawtucket manager Kevin Boles described him as a “tireless worker” with a ferocious commitment to maintaining his swing and conditioning. He has stayed at exactly 203 pounds all season, part of what Castillo believes has contributed to his healthiest season since signing a seven-year, $72.5 million deal with the Red Sox in late 2014.

“He’s a big leaguer,” said Boles. “He’s a big leaguer on a Triple A field. You coach at third. The third baseman says, ‘How is this guy still here?’ Everybody knows it. Everybody knows he’s major league-quality.”

Unlike his commute to Pawtucket, however, Castillo’s road to the big leagues features nothing but detours. He was taken off the big league roster at a time when doing so meant that his salary no longer counted toward the Red Sox’ payroll for luxury tax purposes.

Even as the Red Sox are paying him extremely well (salaries of $11 million this year and next, with a $13.5 million guarantee for 2020), they don’t have to pay any penalties on that money. However, MLB and the Players’ Association closed that loophole in the most recent collective bargaining agreement, so if he is added to the big league roster but then outrighted again, his average annual salary would still be taxable.

Hence, if the team added him to the big league roster for even a day, all of his remaining earnings (roughly $3 million this year, and a bit over $26 million through 2020) would be subject to the luxury tax.


On top of his salary, the Red Sox would have to pay about $2 million in taxes for calling him up for the rest of this year. And given that there’s a strong likelihood they will be over the luxury tax threshold in 2019 or 2020, adding Castillo to the roster at any point this year likely would cost the team at least $10 million in taxes — and possibly quite a bit more — between now and 2020.

That tax alone represents a higher cost than many reserve outfielders.

That cost has been prohibitive to a callup. Yet it also has made trading Castillo prohibitive, since the Sox would have to subsidize most of his remaining deal – with the subsidy counting against the team’s payroll as calculated for luxury taxes.

The only way that Castillo could get back to the big leagues without costing the Sox millions in tax money is if the team released him. Yet given that they are paying him handsomely, they have little incentive to release him just so he can seek an opportunity elsewhere.

Bottom line: Castillo appears stuck in Pawtucket. He has the right to opt out of his deal after 2019, but would have to leave $13.5 million on the table to do so. If he doesn’t, he could spend much or all of two more full seasons driving back and forth from Boston to Pawtucket.


Yet with perspective born from the life he left behind in Cuba and the one he’s created with his wife and child in Boston, Castillo refuses to dwell on the idea that a life-changing contract could also be an impediment to a big league opportunity.

“I never knew the rules and never imagined it could be this way, but I don’t focus on it in the least,” he said. “I only focus on getting better. I do realize that putting up numbers is the most important thing. If you put those numbers on paper, teams will notice and the opportunity will come.”

Will Castillo retain the skills to compete at the game’s highest level when he no longer represents an accounting quandary?

Castillo can’t answer those questions by himself. The only thing he can do is perform.

“He’s a guy who stands out at this level,” said Boles. “But I watch him and the mission is the same. It’s doing everything he can to try to be an option for the big leagues.”


■  Righthander Mike Shawaryn has gotten off to a strong start after his promotion to Pawtucket, with a seven-inning, complete-game shutout Tuesday representing his third solid start. He’s 2-0 with a 2.95 ERA, 19 strikeouts, and 6 walks.

While Shawaryn’s low-90s fastball and cutter/slider have always allowed him to excel against righties, an increased usage of his changeup has helped him handle Triple A lefties, who are hitting .194 with no extra-base hits against him.


■   Bobby Dalbec continues to crush the ball since his promotion to Double A Portland, forging a .341/.404/.780 line with 5 homers and 8 extra-base hits in 11 games.

His strikeout rate has jumped to 36.2 percent in Portland (up from 31.0 percent in High A Salem), though unexpectedly, most of the righthanded hitter’s issues have come against lefties. He’s 0 for 7 with six strikeouts against lefties; against righties, he is .412/.474/.941 with a 28.9 percent strikeout rate.

■  Righthander Tanner Houck continued his second-half surge by blitzing through seven innings in 72 pitches (78 percent strikes) while allowing one run, striking out seven, and walking none Tuesday for High A Salem.

After early-season control struggles, the 2017 first-rounder has corrected course, striking out 50 and walking 10 over his last 48 innings (eight starts) while going 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA and getting a ton of ground balls.


■   Lefthander Bobby Poyner has just three strikeouts in five appearances spanning 7⅔ innings this month, and with lefties hitting a solid .255/.300/.468 with just a 17.6 percent strikeout rate against him, his early-season emergence as a surprise late-innings candidate seems increasingly unlikely to be repeated at the end of the year.

■   Kole Cottam, who quickly emerged as one of the more interesting catching prospects in the system since being taken in the fourth round this year, was sidelined after just one game with Single A Greenville (following a promotion from Lowell) with a knee injury.

Between the 21-year-old Cottam’s issue and a rash of injuries for Salem catcher Roldani Baldwin, it’s been a difficult year for the health of the Red Sox’ top catching prospects.

■   In short-season Lowell, outfielder Cole Brannen has been out since July 18 with an ankle sprain. He’d seemingly regained his footing by raising his average and OBP by about 100 points each over his tough early marks in Single A Greenville (from .157 with a .246 OBP to .256 with a .343 OBP). It remains to be seen whether he returns before the end of the season.