Baseball's newest hype machine found itself a home Friday when the Boston Red Sox came to terms with 27-year-old Rusney Castillo on the largest contract ever handed out to a Cuban defector, a seven-year deal worth $72.5 million. Castillo's comps in scouting reports have ranged from Rajai Davis (meh) to a centerfield-capable Ron Gant (for those who don't remember, he was a 30/30 threat for the Braves of the early 90's) to a more powerful Brett Gardner. The Yankees hosted the 5-foot-9, right-handed hitter for a private workout at their Tampa complex on August 8th, but at some point they decided either that he wasn't worth a record commitment or that he simply wasn't a positional fit. Reportedly, they preferred him at second base to the outfield, where he played in Cuba.
There was once a time when the road from Cuba's Serie Nacional to the American Major Leagues seemed to run through the Bronx. The Yankees were all over Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez from the moment he hopped on a northward bound boat on Christmas Day, 1997 and they were well rewarded for their $6.6 million commitment. Five years later, despite the failures of intermittent signings Adrian "El Duquecito" Hernandez and Andy Morales, they got the whole "Evil Empire" thing started by blowing the Red Sox out of the water with a $32 million bid for Jose Contreras. Back then, major Cuban talents hitting the market was a sort of rare thing, but in recent years, player defections have proliferated to the point where the regime now allows some of its stars to play in pro leagues around the world in an effort to stem the tide. Oddly, even with more players now available, the Yankees have stayed mostly out of the picture of late, outside of minor signings of low-ceiling players like Ronnier Mustelier and Adonis Garcia and long-shot raw tools guys like Omar Luis.
The appeal of Cuban players to MLB teams is obvious. With professional free agent classes getting weaker, older and pricier, signing twenty-somethings to contracts that carry them through their prime years - and only their prime years - is an appealing thought. Those contracts, which usually aren't subject to international spending pools, have the potential to look like absolute steals compared with what established players make. Jose Abreu is currently third in the majors in OPS for just $11 million per year. Yasiel Puig has a 156 wRC+ for $6 million annually and Aroldis Chapman is one of the game's best relievers for a mere $5.5 million. Even for more modest successes, the deals look good. Yoenis Cespedes' $9 million AAV isn't bad for a 2.0-3.0 fWAR, mid-twenties home run guy and Leonys Martin is a solid speed and defense outfielder for a paltry $3 million per. Players like Jorge Soler, Alex Guerrero, Erisbel Arruebarrena and Aledmys Diaz, who've performed well in the minors thus far, may represent the next wave of Cuban exiles to make an impact at the big league level.
So why aren't the Yankees in on this? It may be that they don't feel confident enough to commit big money based on traditional stopwatch and radar gun type scouting done mostly on workouts, choppy internet video and a few international games. Before the Yankees went all in on Masahiro Tanaka, they spent a year watching, analyzing, breaking down every single one of his starts. They can't do that in Cuba, as MLB rules prohibit team reps from traveling there. Even if you buy into theories of clandestine scouting trips, the data sources available on Cuban prospects are sketchy at best. Without top flight opponents to judge players against, Serie Nacional stats are hardly meaningful.
There's been speculation that the Yankees' luxury tax situation might be to blame for their shyness. Theoretically, Castillo's deal with Boston could have cost New York as much as $108 million if they stay above the tax threshold and at the maximum tax rate for the next seven years, but that's true of anyone they plan on signing, Cuban or not. Roster flexibility is also an issue. There wasn't a clear landing spot for Abreu last year with Mark Teixeira holding down first base and several other players likely to need DH at bats over the coming seasons. Likewise, Castillo's skills are somewhat similar to Gardner's and Jacoby Ellsbury's and the Yankees might still believe they can use Carlos Beltran in right next year. There's something to be said, though, for a "find talent now, figure out how to use it later" approach. The Red Sox had no problem adding Castillo to an already-crowded outfield that includes Cespedes, Shane Victorino and Allen Craig, along with Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley, Jr.
As an armchair judge of talent, it's totally unfair to sit back and tell a Major League team who it should and shouldn't sign based on a few grainy YouTube clips and WBC highlights. From a fan's perspective it's a no-lose situation - these players have a mysterious allure because they carry no baggage. They haven't been broken down and picked apart the way most prospects have by the time they reach Double-A. It's not that the Yankees are wrong for passing on any Cuban standout in particular, it's that they somehow haven't found any of them to their liking. Sure, not everyone works out. For every Puig and every Abreu, there's an Adeiny Hechavarria or a Yunesky Maya - a guy who gets some publicity - and a few million dollars - then slowly fades into the baseball ether. But there are risks with every signing, as the Yankees know well. For a team that has trouble developing players from within - a team that needs to get younger - picking up prime and before-prime players for a usually reasonable cost seems like a worthwhile pursuit.
The Yankees won't need to wait long to consider a big-name Cuban defector again. Yasmani Tomas is a 23-year-old, 230-lb corner outfielder who boasts 70 raw power on the 20-80 scale according to Ben Badler. He defected in June in hopes of signing with an MLB team and if things go smoothly, he should be cleared to do so sometime this off-season. It's early in the process but he may very well top Castillo's contract only a few months after. Recent history tells us that someone will most definitely go big. Will it finally be the Yankees?