Trying to form an opinion on Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo is essentially an exercise in reading comprehension. We know very little about Castillo except what is told to us, that he is a talented baseball player who happens to be an outfielder, now available to sign with a major league team of his choosing. We also know the Mariners are more than a little interested.
You can find all sorts of basic information on Castillo around the web, that he's 27, right-handed, 5'9'', fast, and has reportedly packed on 20 lbs of mass since his last appearance, which may or may not translate into more power. Somebody says it does, and so we choose to believe that and accept it as truth. One man's estimation is our best conclusion, because we have no other options. His statistics are of small samples and against wildly inferior competition, and he's yet to play competitive baseball in 2014, thanks to his defection from Cuba and agency deal with Roc Nation.
Here's what Ben Badler of Baseball America had to say about Castilo before the added bulk he displayed at a recent showcase.
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 righthanded 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.
Castillo has been holding private workouts with several teams, and the Mariners are among them. Castillo was supposed to showcase his skills for the Mariners on Sunday, but something made them reschedule. One way or another, they're interested in Castillo, and why shouldn't they be? Next year's free agent outfield class is barren, internal outfield depth continues to be a problem for the Mariners, and there's been a recent stretch of successful talent coming over from Cuba, most recently Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig before him.
There's no question that recent success combined with a starving desperation for offense plays a part in any sort of desire for Castillo. However, what's been most interesting is witnessing fans throw their full support behind a player we essentially know nothing about.
Scouting video is grainy, selected from an subset of games from an indeterminate length of time ago. Castillo looks undeniably fast, and his bat doesn't seem slow in the least. Jose Abreu's bat was supposed to be slow, and he's turning into the most prolific home run hitter in the majors.
Castillo's statistics don't mean much. Cuban competition is weak, relatively infrequent, and pitchers rarely throw over 90 mph. Castillo has a short, compact swing that has been compared to Brett Gardner, but it's really a speculative guess as to how that will translate. Most of the scouting reports speak in great details about the skills that are certain to translate, like speed and defense. The offense is somewhat of a mystery, even to the best of the best prognosticators. Castillo had a bad year at the plate in 2013 (.250/.352/.342), but murdered pitching in 2012 (.332/.395/.545). Cuban seasons are so short that a bad year doesn't mean much more than a slow start in the bigs.
It's just fairly impossible for myself, or anybody else, to really know exactly what Castillo is going to do in the majors, yet there's an increasingly loud outpouring of pleas for the Mariners to sign him. Pleas to take a risk, that he's the next Yasiel Puig, or that he's the true leadoff hitter the Mariners have been waiting for. I get it. I'd be thrilled if the Mariners made a splash, because there's no other non-trade splashes to make in the outfield next year. But the recent success of Puig and Abreu is going to drive his price up, and that price may outweigh the risk of signing a guy that some organizations view as a fourth outfielder. But maybe not.
Castillo, even if he signs, probably isn't going to help any organizations this year, and unless he ends up on a big league roster before the end of August, he won't be playoff eligible either. He's a move for the future, a risk that could end up being a steal. This might be the last time somebody gets a crack at an under-market deal for a Cuban player, and we're one or two more Puigs away from seeing the Cuban/MLB pipeline really blow up. Yasmani Tomas is the next prized Cuban slugger expected to sign this offseason, and at 23, so young for already developed international talent, Tomas might set a new precedent. Castillo isn't quite the talent Puig was coming out, but he's already expected to command a deal similar to his. The window to snag bargains from Cuba is closing.
I'd love it if the Mariners signed Castillo, but admit that I'd be basing my opinion off of a few scouting reports that are being passed around and re-interpreted by others. Castillo could bust at the plate, but it seems like he'll at least hold value on the basepaths and with his glove in the outfield, especially if he can play a true center. Austin Jackson is only around for one more year, and the future of the other outfield spots remains murky. Even after acquiring Austin Jackson, the Mariners desperately still need outfielders, and while Castillo may not be a star, there's always that lingering hope that he could be. Either way, how often do you get a chance to add a potential impact player for $30-45 million?
Maybe I am just like everybody else, reading scouting bylines about a player I've never really seen and hoping that they're all true, ignoring the financial risk as the price of contracts rise. If the Mariners blew away the competition with an offer for Rusney Castillo, optimism would again reign supreme in Seattle. After this year's wild card race, that's a feeling I'll never get enough of.
I have a measured approach to the game of baseball. I rarely make a conclusion without evaluating all possible information, then I support a decision I can stand behind and defend with confidence. I can't do that with Castillo, yet I'm still formulating an opinion the best I can. Considering the looming Cuban bubble burst and miserable 2015 outfielder free agent class, there's no better time to take a risk than right now. The Mariners are pretty good. Take a shot at making them a lot better for 2015 while still holding on to all your biggest assets.