August 15, 2014 at 6:35 am

Tigers pursue Cuban outfielder to replace Austin Jackson

Cuban Rusney Castillo is expected to sign next week a long-term deal that analysts believe could push $50M. (Raul Arboleda / Getty Images)

They have been without an everyday center fielder since last month’s staggering trade for David Price sent Austin Jackson to Seattle.

But if efforts growing more intense by the hour pay off, the Tigers may have a replacement. They are targeting Rusney Castillo, 27, who last year defected from Cuba and whose speed and power combination could make him an 11th-hour addition to a team pressing for a playoff bid.

Castillo is 5-foot-9, 200 pounds, and a right-handed batter who is expected to sign sometime next week to a long-term deal that national analysts believe could push $50 million.

The Tigers have competition across the board, with the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, Mariners, etc., all expected to make whopping bids. The Tigers, however, are viewed as a potential landing place because of their tendency to match bigger-market bids and, most directly, because of their desperate attempt to win a fourth consecutive American League Central title and a long-craved world championship for owner Mike Ilitch.

Castillo defected from Cuba last December and has not played in a high-level game for a year. But most scouts regard his layoff as no serious issue, saying Castillo could be ready for a big-league game after as little as a two-week tune-up in the minors.

“He’s a guy who could be inserted today and who would help every major-league club,” said one American League scout, who does not work for the Tigers and who requested anonymity. “His bat impressed me with his ability to square up the ball, with power all over the field.

“He can run down almost anything in the outfield. He’s a 70 runner (80 is a maximum scouting score), his hands are fine, his arm is average to solid-average. His minimum — his floor — is a fourth outfielder who could be used as a defensive replacement or pinch-runner every day.

“His ceiling is as an All-Star center fielder. I think he fits somewhere in between.”

The Tigers are saying little about Castillo, and not only because Dave Dombrowski, the team’s president and general manager, was busy Thursday at the big-league owners’ meetings in Baltimore. Al Avila, the Tigers assistant general manager, declined comment on Castillo, as did David Chadd, the team’s vice president of amateur scouting, as well as Tom Moore, who directs the Tigers’ international scouting.

It is standard procedure for the Tigers’ front office to zip lips when any player is being pursued, whether a big-league free agent, or an early-round draft pick. Because of the poker game involving so many competing clubs and Castillo’s representatives, Roc Nation Sports, the Tigers are expected to be all the more stealthy until a contract is signed, no matter what club wins.

The Tigers had a five-man contingent at Castillo’s workout two weeks ago at Mark Light Field, on the University of Miami campus in Coral Gables, Fla. The group included Chadd and Moore, as well as Scott Pleis, who is director of amateur scouting. Also on hand was Moore’s assistant, Eric Nieto, and Nick Avila, a former Tigers pitching prospect a nephew of Al Avila and now a Miami-area scout for the Tigers.

Scouts for 27 other teams also turned out for Castillo’s showcase workout. Consistent with past policies on early draft picks or free agents, the Tigers are also believed to have held a private session for Castillo to better gauge his bat, speed, defense, arm, etc.

With the clock moving toward a decision, and with the Tigers’ playoff spot in jeopardy, Detroit is understood to be hunting Castillo even more intensely than it was gunning early in 2012 for Yoenis Cespedes, a Cuban defector and outfield star who later signed with the A’s (four years, $36 million) and who last month was traded to the Red Sox.

The Tigers backed away from Cespedes only after Victor Martinez tore his knee in January 2012. It sent them scrambling for a more experienced middle-of-the-order player, which led to Prince Fielder and a spectacular $214 million payday.

There is no indication the Tigers were seriously contemplating Castillo when they sent Jackson to the Mariners at the July trade deadline. But even a starter as inconsistent as Jackson has largely been missed since he was dealt so suddenly 15 days ago.

Rajai Davis and Ezequiel Carrera have been splitting time in center, but Davis is preferred as a left-field option, while Carrera has spent most of his professional life in the minors and has yet to prove he can be trusted with regular work in the big leagues.

Compared with past spending levels, the Tigers are in reasonable shape to sign Castillo. Jackson’s 2014 salary was $6 million, but he was arbitration-eligible again in 2015 and would likely have pulled a decent raise — ahead of free agency in 2015, which was a factor in the Tigers making him part of the Price trade.

Torii Hunter, whose contract expires at the end of this season, makes $13 million. Added to contracts also running out for Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez, the Tigers theoretically have room for a sizeable Castillo bid, as long as the payroll remains in the general area Ilitch has maintained it.

Should the Tigers miss on Castillo, it is possible they’ll shop later in the year for another Cuban defector: Yasmani Tomas, 23, also a right-hand hitting outfielder whose power is his trademark — heftier even than Castillo’s, in the eyes of scouts.

Tomas is currently living in the Dominican Republic and must gain residency outside of Cuba before Commissioner Bud Selig’s office clears him for big-league negotiations. That timetable is expected to be complete late this autumn or early in 2015.

Tomas is 6-1, 230, and four years younger than Castillo. He also has fewer overall skills, although scouts project him to be an adequate corner outfielder. His power would be of natural interest to a Tigers team that could be looking at a corner outfield hole.

Keith Law, a scout and writer for ESPN.com, liked Tomas’ overall hitting package and compared him, on one level, with White Sox rookie and Cuban defector Jose Abreu, who leads the league in home runs.

“What Tomas brings is plus power,” Law wrote, “and I don’t think it’s just (batting practice) power, as he’s very short to the ball — maybe even more so than Abreu — with good hip rotation and a very quiet approach.”

Law wrote, however, that Tomas “has below-average bat speed, unlike Abreu or (Yasiel) Puig (Dodgers star and a former Cuban defector), and I’ve had multiple scouts tell me they question Tomas’ ability to hit for average against major-league pitching.

“A reasonable/optimistic projection for Tomas would be an average to slightly-above average regular in left field, with 25 to 30 home runs, a low (on-base percentage) and below-average defense.”

Whether the Tigers show interest in Tomas, could depend on what happens in the next few days. For a team bent on winning a championship, and in peril of losing its playoff reservation, Castillo is likely viewed as their immediate priority.

Lynn.henning@detroitnews.com