Can Rusney Castillo Still Live Up to Expectations?

By now you’ve heard this story a million times. Player A comes with high expectations. He’s supposed to be the next breakout star, an impact hitter, or a difference making pitcher. Players don’t always live up to such lofty expectations. Guys get hurt, they underperform, they fail to meet sky high expectations.

This is the game of baseball. Every draft pick is a risk. Every contract doled out is a risk. For the Boston Red Sox, that story is no different.

Obviously the contracts of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez were big risks. And to this point, those risks have manifested themselves in both players being abject failures in 2015. However, the Red Sox already had a perhaps bigger risk on their ledger, one who received less money, but was also less proven. That player is Rusney Castillo.

Following the news of Castillo being passed over by the Red Sox in favor of Brock Holt as the starting left fielder, with Chris Young as a suitable platoon option, Castillo’s days may be numbered in Boston. It’s clear that the Red Sox are trying to compete this year, in what is already one of the deepest divisions in all of baseball. For Boston, they cannot afford to wait any longer on the Rusney Castillo breakout that was supposed to happen last season, and perhaps even the year before that.

Originally signed by Boston as an international free agent near the end of the 2014 season, Castillo has yet to live up to the lofty expectations that come with a seven-year, $72.5 million contract. Castillo was supposed to be the next Yasiel Puig and, while Yasiel Puig is struggling to be Yasiel Puig, those expectations have followed him throughout his whole MLB career to this point.

To this point, the Red Sox have paid their outfielder $0.1 million in 2014, $10.5 million in 2015, and are on the hook for an additional $10.5 million in 2016. Beyond that, Castillo is set to make another $10.5 million in 2017, $11 million in 2018, $11 million in 2019, and finally $13.5 million in 2020. As it currently stands, the Red Sox are still on the hook for $56.5 million over the next five seasons for a player who currently has no clear path to playing time with the various options and depth the Red Sox have.

It appears Brock Holt and Chris Young will operate in a lefty/righty platoon in left field, while Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. appear to be the outfielders of the future in center and right respectively. With prospect Andrew Benintendi set to be the Sox left fielder of the future, there just doesn’t seem to be a place for Castillo at present, or in the future. The Red Sox want to win, and don’t seem to have the patience to wait for Castillo to meet those lofty expectations.

Despite these concerns, one could argue that the Red Sox are giving up on Castillo much too early. Obviously it takes a lot to use a player making that kind of money as a bench player, but it may be unfair to Castillo given his limited major league playing time. Even with all the lofty expectations and huge contract, Castillo has only played in 90 big league games to this point, along with 40 minor league games. In total, Castillo has only had just over 300 plate appearances at the big league level since signing with the Sox out of Cuba. That’s hardly enough playing time to make a real evaluation about his talent level, or his future for that matter.

Even so, it appears the Red Sox are ready to role with him in a utility role, or perhaps trade him off the team entirely. Dave Cameron wrote an interesting piece over at Fangraphs Tuesday morning, speculating on a Rusney Castillo trade and the potential fits. Chief among the teams that would make sense for a trade, if the Red Sox are actually considering moving Castillo, are the San Diego Padres, Atlanta Braves, and Philadelphia Phillies, three teams all either in the middle of a full rebuild, or who are looking to get younger. Castillo represents a perfect bounce-back candidate for one of these teams, as he is still only 28 years old. That kind of contract is obviously a financial liability though, making any potential move that much more complicated.

Regardless of whether Castillo ends up being traded, or if the Red Sox are even considering this type of move at all, there are serious questions about whether Castillo will ever live up to the lofty expectations that came with his signing out of Cuba. Based on his limited big league playing time, I am inclined to say that Castillo can still meet some of those expectations, and be a valuable everyday major league outfielder.

It’s abundantly clear that Castillo struggled in 2015. A .253/.288/.359 slash line over 80 games just isn’t going to cut it, nor is a wRC+ 28 percent below league average. However, despite his offensive struggles, Castillo did shine in one facet of his game: defense.

In just over 600 innings at the big league level in 2015, split between left, center, and right, Castillo totaled a cumulative UZR of 10.4 and an UZR/150 of 20.0. In 217 innings in left field Castillo accumulated a UZR of 5.3, in 89 innings in center field he was a -1.2 UZR defender, and in 356 innings in right field he was a 6.2 UZR defender. Obviously the center-field numbers weren’t great, but they represent an extremely limited sample size. Even so, Castillo has the capability of being a top 10 defender in the league given full playing time at one of the three outfield spots.

Castillo’s defensive value cannot be overstated, but his lack of offensive value has slowed his career to this point. The problem with Castillo has been his inability to truly drive the ball, as demonstrated by his 60+ percent ground ball rate in both 2014 and 2015. Add to that, his soft hit percentage being right in line with his hard hit percentage (22.6 percent vs. 23.1 percent), and Castillo has struggled to make solid contact and drive the ball. This has diminished his performance at the plate, and diminished his value to the Red Sox in a starting capacity.

Even though these numbers aren’t reassuring, at 28 years old, Castillo still has plenty of time to make adjustments to his swing and improve on those numbers. If Castillo can start driving the ball more, and hit just a little bit better, he can be a solid everyday regular on the strength of his defense alone. The raw talent and value are still there, but still remain untapped potential at this point.

Although the Red Sox appear to be done waiting, that potential could still be found in Castillo in the future. A change of scenery could end up doing a lot of good for Castillo and his future as a major league baseball player. It’s unclear how willing the Red Sox are to move on from Castillo completely, but it may be the best thing for him at this point. Castillo can still be a good, or even great, player. All he needs now is the second chance to prove those expectations right. Whether that is with the Red Sox, the Padres, Braves, Phillies, or another team entirely, remains to the seen.

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