FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The mystery has been solved. Rusney Castillo isn't good enough to be an everyday player in the big leagues.
That was the message the Boston Red Sox effectively sent Tuesday when manager John Farrell outlined the outfield roles by describing Castillo as little more than a fill-in for center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and the third man in a left-field platoon that features lefty-hitting super-utilityman Brock Holt and righty-swinging veteran Chris Young.
Not exactly what the Sox expected for $72.5 million.
Two years ago, still feeling the burn of finishing second to the Chicago White Sox in the bidding for Cuban slugger Jose Abreu, the Red Sox signed Castillo to the largest contract ever for a Cuban defector based on workouts that left them smitten by his raw athleticism. One team official even invoked Deion Sanders as a comparison for Castillo's unique blend of above-average speed, power and outfield defense.
Since then, nagging injuries have interrupted Castillo's development and hindered his performance. He’s a .262 hitter with a .681 OPS in 309 big-league at-bats, and that includes an 80-at-bat stretch last season in which he batted .375 with three doubles, two triples, four homers and a 1.024 OPS.
But despite his minimal big-league track record, he entered spring training with the inside track on the left-field job, with president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski insisting the Red Sox needed to give him the opportunity to sink or swim.
This spring, Castillo has sunk like a stone.
"The area that he continues to work at is just the offensive side of the game. That's got to gain some consistency," said Farrell, who has seen Castillo ground out enough to kill a small family of ants during a spring in which he's batting .204 (10-for-49) with one extra-base hit. "That's part of his own knowledge of who he is and what his swing is capable of and how that matches up with certain types of pitches."
But Farrell doesn't have time to wait around for a 28-year-old to learn those lessons. After back-to-back last-place finishes, the manager's head likely will roll if the Red Sox have another lousy April.
Dombrowski didn’t sign Castillo (that move belonged to former general manager Ben Cherington), although as the Detroit Tigers' baseball-ops honcho, he was impressed enough to make a bid. Still, Dombrowski, with the blessing of principal owner John Henry, is giving Farrell carte blanche to play whomever he wants regardless of salaries and contract terms.
That's why $95 million man Pablo Sandoval finds himself in a fight to keep the third-base job in the face of a challenge from unheralded Travis Shaw. And it's why Castillo, who will make $10.5 million this year, is about to become one of the highest-paid fifth outfielders in baseball history.
It can be argued the Red Sox are a better team if they take advantage of Holt's versatility on an everyday basis rather than playing him at primarily one position. But the fact that he will be the primary left fielder against right-handed pitchers speaks volumes for how little Castillo has done to earn Farrell's faith.
To those who saw Castillo play in Cuba, his lack of success here isn’t a complete surprise.
“I always felt he had the tools to play at the major-league level, but I don’t think he’s going to be a big-league superstar,” author and historian Peter Bjarkman, regarded as an expert on Cuban baseball, said before spring training. “I don’t think he’s in the class with Abreu or possibly (Chicago Cubs outfielder Jorge) Soler. I think that contract was a bit insane. Why they felt they had to spend that kind of money, I don’t know.”
Bjarkman believes Castillo can adapt to better pitching in the big leagues than he ever saw in Cuba, where pitchers typically lack consistent velocity. But Castillo also is at an age when most players are relatively finished products, so Bjarkman is skeptical he will suddenly blossom into what the Red Sox envisioned.
"My plan has always been to just be ready for the season," Castillo said through translator Daveson Perez. "I don't pay attention to anything other than that. I'm ready to play, whether I'm in the game or whether I'm coming off the bench. My plan is just to always stay ready for whatever situation happens."
But being a fifth outfielder? That’s hardly a situation Castillo or the Red Sox ever envisioned.