A recent wave of star Cuban baseball players defecting and making their way to the MLB has brought some tremendous talent to the league in recent years, and the next in line may have just become available in center fielder Rusney Castillo.
This offseason has already seen slugging first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu agree to a six-year, $68 million deal with the White Sox and middle infielder Alexander Guerrero ink a four-year, $28 million contract with the Dodgers.
That on the cusp of right-hander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez signing a three-year, $12 million deal with the Phillies back on August 30, as he'll likely join the team's rotation this coming year.
Now, Castillo, a speedy 26-year-old outfielder, will hit the open free-agent market here in the days ahead. Having played five seasons in Cuba's Serie Nacional, standard free-agency rules will apply to him, so the international signing bonus pool restrictions won't apply to him.
A Baseball America article from Ben Badler, recently after it was announced that Castillo had defected, took a look at his physical tools and how he profiles in the MLB:
Castillo is short but has a strong, athletic frame at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds. His best tool is his speed, as he’s an above-average runner and one of the better base stealers in Cuba. More of a doubles hitter than a big home run threat, Castillo puts a charge into the ball with a line-drive right-handed swing, though he can get long to the ball at times, and some scouts think he’s prone to chasing pitches off the plate.
Primarily a center fielder in Cuba, Castillo has also played some second and third base, so his versatility could be a draw for some teams. He’s an aggressive, high-energy player, though some teams see him as a fourth outfielder.
The article goes on to explain how Castillo became the next in line for the starting center field spot on the Cuban National Team after Yoenis Cespedes and Leonys Martin both defected. He went on to dominate in his first action as a starter, going 21-for-41 with four doubles, two triples and two home runs in the 2011 World Cup.
Castillo was left off of the Team Cuba roster in the recent World Baseball Classic, as he was actually suspended from the national team at the time for a “violation of the code of ethics of revolutionary baseball," which likely means he was caught trying to defect before. That on-going suspension made the defection no big surprise.
He may need some time in the minors to shake off the rust after not having played for a while, but there's no reason to think he can't make a big league impact at some point in 2014.
The question now is, which MLB teams could be in on Castillo once he establishes residency in another country and the Office of Foreign Assets Control declares him cleared to sign? Here is a look at five that could make sense.
It has been an incredibly quiet offseason for the Orioles, as they still have a myriad of holes to fill on their roster if they hope to keep pace in the ultra-competitive AL East. One such hole is in left field, and they could also need a replacement for Nick Markakis in right field in the near future.
The Orioles aren't likely to outbid anyone if the price climbs too high, but if teams do in fact view him more as a fourth outfielder and his asking price remains reasonable, it could be worth the Orioles taking a chance on him exceeding expectations.
The Reds signed one of the biggest Cuban defectors in recent memory in flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman, so they have some history of pursuing top talent that has made its way stateside.
They could also use an insurance policy for speedy rookie Billy Hamilton in center field, as he is set to step into an everyday role with the departure of Shin-Soo Choo in free agency, but he has yet to prove himself at the big league level with just 19 big league at-bats under his belt.
Boston Red Sox
The Reds Sox are also set to turn over the starting center field job to a relatively unproven commodity in Jackie Bradley. After breaking camp on the big league roster last year, Bradley saw a grand total of 95 at-bats last season in Boston and hit just .189/.280/.337 with five doubles and three home runs.
Boston made a serious run at Jose Abreu before he eventually signed with the White Sox and acquired shortstop Jose Iglesias when he defected a few years ago, so they too have a history of making a run at top-Cuban talent.
It's already been a busy offseason for the Mariners, as they've added Robinson Cano, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison to improve their lineup, and they appear ready to spend more as they look to contend in a deep AL West.
Some combination of Michael Saunders, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison will likely fill the two corner outfield spots and the DH role, but the Mariners could still use an upgrade over Dustin Ackley in center field. Taking a shot on Castillo could make sense for a team that has been aggressive all winter.
The Phillies already signed one top-Cuban talent in Miguel Gonzalez and wound up spending significantly less than they were ready to after some arm issues cropped up prior to the two sides agreeing to terms. Now, they could look to make another aggressive run at a Cuban star.
Veteran Marlon Byrd was signed to a two-year deal to fill out the outfield alongside Domonic Brown and Ben Revere, but they could still use a fourth outfielder and someone capable of stepping in for Byrd long-term or in case he suffers through some regression this coming year.