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Of Andrew Benintendi, Rusney Castillo, and growing pains

A sophomore slump might be all it takes to get Rusney Castillo back in Boston. But don’t expect much from him if the opportunity arises.

Boston Red Sox v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Red Sox fans are about as excited as they possibly can be for Andrew Benintendi’s first full season. For all that they’ve been inundated with young talent of late, particularly in the outfield, there’s no player who’s risen quite as quickly as Benintendi, going from draft day to the starting lineup in just over a year and producing an .835 OPS over his first 118 plate appearances in the majors before acting as a rare bright spot in an all-too-brief postseason run.

If Benintendi’s rise has been more meteoric than most, though, Sox fans are used to fast starts, and know that they do not leave the young players who enjoy them immune to growing pains. Xander Bogaerts forced his way into the starting lineup in October of 2013, but endured a miserable 2014. Jackie Bradley Jr. was, lest we forget, a spring training sensation who quickly proved incapable of maintaining that heat come April; it wouldn’t be until the tail end of 2015 that he finally found his way. Mookie Betts is the exception, but hey, even a first full season which earned him a token nod in the MVP race (19th place) looks like a bit of a struggle when compared to his ridiculous 2016 campaign.

And then there’s Rusney Castillo.

Hey, yeah, remember that guy? I bet you wish you didn’t! But the $72.5 million man still exists, and it wasn’t that long ago that Red Sox fans were just as excited for his first full season. Castillo had, after all, introduced himself in the dead days of 2014 by bringing a spark of life to Fenway, hitting to a .928 OPS in 40 plate appearances. An extremely small sample size, but not so extremely small when compared to that which has us so excited about Benintendi.

But then injury struck, and an outfield logjam kept Castillo out of the Opening Day picture. He would not return to the lineup until late May, and after a slow start, found himself wasting away on the bench, then back to Pawtucket for a month before getting the call once more towards the end of July. It might be hard to recall at this point, but for a brief moment there, it even seemed like Castillo was going to follow through on his big contract and come up big for the Red Sox. He was huge over the next month, going 30-for-80 with four homers, but fell back to a dismal .647 OPS before all was said and done on the season. He received only the briefest of looks in 2016, and then it was back to the minors.

And that, as it stands, is Rusney Castillo’s career in Boston. And it’s hard to say he’s really received the short end of the stick. It would’ve been nice to see him given more consistent playing time in 2015, and maybe the Red Sox should’ve tried him again in 2016 rather than giving playing time to Bryce Brentz or inviting disaster by moving Blake Swihart to the outfield, but it’s also hard to blame them for not giving him any real consideration when he hit to a .664 OPS even in Pawtucket. For all the world, he does not seem to be a player capable of playing Major League Baseball.

There has finally been a positive sign. In the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, Castillo produced an .882 OPS in some 51 at bats. It’s earned him a rare piece of positive press from Rob Bradford on WEEI including some positive quotes from Alex Cora about a changed approach at the plate and some off-the-field differences that may have Castillo in a better place. It is, as Bradford suggests, the sort of thing that might at least make the Sox consider bumping him up over a Junior Lake should the time come.

But as with August of 2015, this seems more than a bit sketchy. Castillo’s .882 OPS comes with a lot of hits but no homers, and an OBP little removed from a sky-high batting average. And sure enough, come the postseason, Castillo is trending sharply downward, with four hits to five strikeouts in the first four games. When you add in that Castillo is playing among minor leaguers, many of whom are not even Triple-A quality, and doing so at age 29 with no excuse of youth or inexperience to fall back on, it all seems like another mirage.

It’s possible some of this is in Benintendi’s future, but likely only the part in the major leagues, if that. As with Bradley and Bogaerts, even if you’re producing in a sustainable way, it can take some time for the jump to the majors to catch up as advanced scouting and precise pitchers manage to expose any holes in your game. But outside of a couple bad weeks in 2014, Bradley was his usual promising self when he was playing in Pawtucket, and once he managed to figure some things out, was an All-Star in Boston. Technically Benintendi never did establish that solid base in Triple-A as Bradley did in 2013, but only because he was dominant enough in Double-A to earn a call-up to Boston. Castillo never had that to start, but his performance in Triple-A since hasn’t provided one since. If Benintendi ever sees Pawtucket outside of, say, a rehab stint (and hopefully not even that), there’s little reason to expect it will prove more of a challenge than his jump to Double-A, and every reason to believe he will be back in Boston before long.

Still, in the unlikely event that Benintendi does endure such an awful Sophomore slump that the Red Sox decide he’s better off back down in Triple-A, with so little depth behind him, it might well be Rusney Castillo’s opportunity to try again. But without the positive signs we received from the likes of Jackie Bradley Jr. during his hiatus, it’s hard to imagine his second chance will go much better than his first.