At 18-20 through the first 38 games of the season, it’s fair to say the Red Sox have gotten off to a rockier start than many had hoped for or expected. There hasn’t been one area in particular at which we can point to explain the struggles, either. The first portion of the season was defined by an inability to limit runs, while the more recent slide has been due to an inability to score runs. At one point or another, every area of the roster has been culpable to blame.
When these kinds of things happen, the understandably common reaction is to call for sweeping change. It’s frustrating to watch teams that can never seem to put the entire puzzle together on a nightly basis. Of course, major trades are typically off the table for this time of year, meaning the calls for change involve calling prospects up from the minors. In this specific case, we refer to the Eduardo Rodriguezes and Brian Johnsons of the world. With the offense currently struggling, the calls are only going to get louder for Rusney Castillo. Is it time for him to finally get his chance?
The first question that would need to be answered before calling up Castillo is who gets kicked off the roster? For some, Shane Victorino is the first who comes to mind, but that’s not going to happen right now. Victorino’s overall numbers this year certainly aren’t promising, but he’s looked much better in his first few games since coming off the disabled list, and has been playing his typically great defense in right field. Given that defense, the financial implications of releasing him, and the potential for the 2013 version of Victorino, this is the unlikeliest of scenarios to get Castillo on the roster. Barring injury, of course.
The other two options to make room for the Cuban outfielder would be Daniel Nava and Jackie Bradley. The former has really struggled this season to the tune of a .160/.271/.180 batting line. The latter looked good in Pawtucket, although he has yet to find his footing in the majors since being called back up to Boston. Both players add a lefty bat that should prove valuable in a righty-dominated lineup, but have offered very little on offense. While Bradley’s defense is infinitely better than Nava’s, the latter is out of options and would very likely be claimed if exposed to waivers. Given Ben Cherington’s tendency to hoard his depth, it’s hard to see Nava being the one to go over Bradley.
So, with that being decided the next question becomes whether or not it’s worth it purely from a roster perspective. This one is an easy yes. It’s not a knock on Bradley, who can provide strong value just as a defensive replacement. However, if Castillo is on the roster, they already have a well-above-average defensive replacement in Victorino. Bradley’s left-handedness would be redundant with Nava, and his defensive value is redundant with Victorino. Castillo’s offensive superiority over all three is clearly more valuable in this case.
Of course, it’s not all about value for right now. The Red Sox have Castillo under contract through 2020, so it is clearly in their best interest to not rush him back to the majors before he is ready, especially coming off an injury. This is Castillo’s first full season of playing baseball since 2012, and he was only able to play in nine spring training games. In this situation, it comes down to getting consistent at bats regardless of level instead of simply being ready to face major-league pitching. Most, myself included, would say he's been ready to for the majors. The delay has been related to the need for consistent at bats.
In essence, this all boils down to whether or not the Red Sox are ready to commit to using Shane Victorino mostly off the bench for the rest of the season. Whenever Castillo comes up, it’s going to be to be in the lineup nearly every day. He’s been swinging an outstanding bat in 17 AAA games this season and currently finds himself with a .304/.355/.449 line. It was a tiny sample, but he looked more than fine in 40 major-league plate appearances at the end of last season when he put up a 160 OPS+. There’s no question his bat is better than Victorino’s, and his defense, while not elite, is more than passable given the offensive upside.
I expected myself to come down on the side of patience here, but I can’t really see much downside to making this move as soon as possible. Jackie Bradley’s defense is incredible, but it’s hardly enough to pause in replacing it with Castillo’s bat. This is an offense that clearly needs a spark, and bringing in a high-upside bat like Castillo could be just what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see the Red Sox relegate Victorino to a bench role right now, as he’s swinging the bat well right now. Unless there’s a factor only team employees could be privy to (such as Castillo's child being born, for example), this is a mistake. An outfield with Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo being backed up by Victorino, Nava and Brock Holt is a high-upside group that should go a long way towards solving the team’s offensive woes.