Among the lower-priority holes currently residing on the Red Sox roster is the lack of a fourth outfielder. It’s not a huge issue for Boston right now for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the starting outfield as currently constructed is one of the best and most exciting in all of baseball. With the defensive versatility and offensive upside at all three spots, there isn’t much of a reason to want to sit them unless it’s absolutely necessary. Additionally, it’s not as if the Red Sox got much from Chris Young last year. There’s not a lot of production to be replaced. Bryce Brentz is currently the only other full-time outfielder on the 40-man roster and according to Dave Dombrowski he is the favorite to start the year as the fourth outfielder. There’s also the possibility that they sign someone like J.D. Martinez as a designated hitter, and he’d be able to fill in as needed in the outfield.
Whenever this discussion comes up, there’s also one more name that comes up every time, without fail. People want to know if Rusney Castillo is going to factor into the decision at all. I get it, considering how much the Red Sox committed to the Cuban outfielder a few years ago and the fact that he’s still in the organization. That being said, I’ll get the answer out of the way off the top: Castillo is not going to be on the Opening Day roster barring some unforeseen developments in camp. There are just too many factors playing against the outfielder getting another chance in the majors, and we’ll get to that soon enough. However, the questions are only going to keep being asked until there is some ultimate resolution, and against the odds Castillo is making a bit of a case for himself to not be ruled out of the equation entirely.
After disappointing as a professional essentially since the day he got into the Red Sox organization, Castillo spent all of 2017 in Pawtucket with no real shot of making it to the majors. I wouldn’t blame you for not paying much attention to the outfielder, but you did miss a somewhat surprisingly successful year. Over 369 plate appearances against Triple-A pitching, Castillo hit .314/.350/.507 for a 138 wRC+. This came after a 2016 in which he posted a wRC+ of just 89 at the same level.
It wasn’t just the end numbers that are encouraging, either, as we’ve seen players succeed in Triple-A plenty of times without it meaning much. The way he got to those numbers are what have really piqued my interest in Castillo’s potential for a major-league impact. The righty’s biggest issue since coming to the States has been that he continuously hit the ball into the ground. As an aggressive bat who isn’t going to draw a lot of walks, he needed to tap into his power potential to make it at the highest level, and it’s really hard to do that when you’re hitting grounders nearly 60 percent of the time. Last year, though, he knocked his ground ball rate all the way down to 45 percent, and the power followed right behind that approach. It’s hard to say this change would certainly carry over to the majors, but it’s a tangible change in the most important area.
The reason I’m so intrigued by Castillo is that, even more than Brentz, he fits the Red Sox’ needs to a tee. For one thing, like Brentz, he is a right-handed bat, which Boston could use to help cancel out the left-handedness of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi. On top of that, he is much more athletic than Brentz and is more able to handle either center or right field. The fact that Boston has, essentially, three center fielders makes this less important, but if one of them goes down with a major injury and another needs a day off, then all of a sudden they are in need of more athleticism in the outfield. This is particularly true if Martinez is the other outfield option.
Perhaps the biggest reason the Castillo question is coming up again after his career looked over — maybe even a bigger reason than his performance — is Alex Cora. The Red Sox’ new manager has long been Castillo’s biggest supporter as his former manager and general manager in the Puerto Rican Winter League. He’s been a fan of the outfielder since the first day they worked together, and all one needs to do is search Cora’s twitter account for mentions of Castillo to see just how much he believes.
Unfortunately for Castillo and those who are still intrigued by the promise of the former Cuban star, the financial factors will likely outweigh the support from Boston’s manager. As most of us know by now, Castillo has been held back largely because of the stress his contract would put on Boston’s luxury tax. The outfielder’s contract does not currently count against the luxury tax after he was outrighted to Pawtucket in 2015. If he were to make his way back to the 40-man roster, his $10.4 million average annual value would count against the luxury tax. Furthermore, since he’s already been outrighted, the Red Sox wouldn’t be able to remove that money for a second time.
Boston can and will pay the luxury tax — if their only concern is ever simply paying the tax, we should all yell at them as much as humanly possible — but the new Collective Bargaining Agreement has a clause in which teams who exceed the luxury tax threshold by at least $40 million move back ten spots in the draft. This is a real-world consequence beyond opening the check book, and one the Red Sox really don’t want to deal with.
It’s possible that Castillo really has turned things around, and if he has that $10.4 million really isn’t a huge price to pay for the player he could potentially be. However, there is at least as good of a chance that his Triple-A performance was a mirage, and the Red Sox can’t go back on the move if they do take him on. I remain intrigued by Castillo, but I likely wouldn’t take a chance on him if I were in Boston’s position. That being said, with Cora in his corner and a lack of another real outfield option beyond Brentz on the roster right now, another strong run in Pawtucket could make things very interesting come summertime.