St. Petersburg, Fla. — To the surprise of no one who has studied the Tigers outfield, Ken Rosenthal, that plugged-in national reporter for Foxsports.com, tweeted Wednesday that Detroit was among three finalists in bidding for Rusney Castillo.
Castillo is a Cuban defector and gifted outfielder whose speed and power tandem, as well as his flair for playing center field, has made the Tigers one of his steady adorers since he was cleared by Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig to be signed.
The Tigers tend to match big-market teams in any push for players such as Castillo. And Detroit needs a replacement for Austin Jackson, who was approaching free agency in a year and who last month was traded in a package that landed David Price. But Detroit’s competitors for Castillo — the Red Sox and Giants, according to Rosenthal — are well-heeled and as hungry for his talents as the Tigers.
Don’t look now
There is one immediate downer for any team signing Castillo. He has not played professional baseball since 2013. He will need extensive time — 50 to 60 at-bats — to rehearse for a big-league game. That means any chance to help a playoff team is all but dead, because players must be added by Aug. 31 to the 25-man active roster if that player is to be eligible for October’s playoffs.
Given Castillo has visa issues as well, any club’s investment is targeted more for the long term. There are ways in which the Tigers or a playoff team could get around the Aug. 31 deadline, but only if another player suffers an injury. That scenario also would require Castillo to have gotten all his red tape snipped and to have attuned his bat and body to the realities of big-league games.
It all points to this being a move made for 2015 and beyond, even though Detroit needs a center fielder now — and the Rajai Davis/Ezequiel Carrera option is proving to be no answer.
Just as critical for this team, and perhaps even more expensive, would be the Tigers’ offseason push to find an everyday center fielder. Any potential free agent help will be a holdup and could involve losing a first-round draft pick. Any practical trade for a center fielder, with the speed and offense the Tigers or any club requires, would also be expensive in terms of talent forfeited and likely contracts inherited.
Castillo offers the possibility of adding an essential up-the-middle talent without having to part with a draft pick or important package of prospects. It’s a check the Tigers no doubt will happily write, if they can beat two teams as accustomed to spending and securing high-profile stars as the Red Sox and Giants.
Dealing with Jackson a year early
Some will wonder why the Tigers traded Jackson, who was at least solid on defense and who had been hitting up to code for a month preceding July’s trade.
The Tigers decided to sell high when they had the chance to add a pitcher of Price’s grandeur. Jackson could have posed a problem a year from now. Do they make him a qualifying offer ($15 million the likely vicinity) for 2016? Do they take a chance on losing a Scott Boras client — the probable scenario for a Boras client if that player has had any kind of a year — and find themselves in the same vacuum they today are dealing with, searching for a center fielder?
This wasn’t going to be an easy call, either way. But with Davis and Carrera at least providing hope for a replacement-level answer in center, and with Castillo going on sale in a matter of days, the Tigers got their main man in Price and decided they could manage in center field.
It has not been a clean transition. Davis isn’t a great defender, and Carrera can’t hit. Meanwhile, the Tigers have slipped into second place in the American League Central Division and are dealing with so many issues with their bullpen and with injuries that center field is simply one piece to a puzzle that seems destined to not fit in 2014. It has been a bad-karma year for the Tigers since spring camp and, six months later, not a great deal has changed, for all of Dave Dombrowski’s aggressive trades and significant bullpen signings.
Castillo is important, probably even critical, to how the Tigers approach their coming seasons. It’s a thought evidently shared by the Red Sox and Giants. The odds aren’t great Castillo will find his way to Detroit. But a town and its baseball fans can sense the desperation.