Cuba is home to the northern hemisphere’s smallest frog, the Eleutherodactylus Iberia. The Eleutherodactylus Iberia’s natural habitat has been disturbed by humans over the last 40 years through deforestation and habitation. Not discovered until 1996 by a team of Penn State biologists, the Eleutherodactylus Iberia is among one of the newest known species of frogs in the world.
Much like the Eleutherodactylus Iberia, Cuban baseball stars are being discovered in an area that was once a forbidden fruit for MLB scouts. The discoveries are coming at a rapid rate as tensions between the U.S. and Cuba ease. Even though the process of defecting remains complicated at best and life threatening at its absolute most horrifying, the Major League successes of Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, and Yoenis Cespedes have enticed scouts to find the next new, top-flight Cuban player. Like the Eleutherodactylus Iberia, the latest discovery may be one of the last and most expensive to find.
Rusney Castillo has drawn comparisons to Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett and Puig. Much of the comparison was related to stature: at 5’9″, 205 lbs, Castillo has a body-type very similar to that of both players. Castillo has added 20 pounds of reported muscle between his playing days in Cuba and his most recent workouts, per Baseball America. Even with the weight, Ben Badler of Baseball America states that Castillo has “70” speed on the 20-80 scouting scale.
The original book on Castillo was that of an average to above average Major League center fielder. Right now, FanGraphs defines that type of player as someone that puts up between 2-4 fWAR. 16 teams had a center fielder last year that posted a WAR above 2. The Phillies were not one of them.
At his workouts, and seeing his new ability to drive the ball, scouts updated his projection to a more firm “above-average” Major League centerfielder. The going rate for a “win” these days is about $5.58 million per year. According to scout reports, the 27-year old Castillo has four-win potential out of the gate, which, in market value, translates into $22.33 million per year.
Obviously, an unproven commodity won’t receive that kind of money, but Castillo’s Cuban compatriots have been massive hits in the US. Abreu is certainly the front-runner for AL Rookie of the Year and will receive MVP consideration on a non-playoff bound team and he was the recipient of a six-year, $58 million deal to play for the White Sox. Cespedes signed before the market particularly exploded and still received $36 million. Castillo, with owners with wet-ink ready for an opportunity to not miss on the next big Cuban star and a history of owners mining all of the talent they can out of countries and continents, one at a time, will not go cheap.
Castillo is going to receive every benefit of being the latest in a line of can’t-miss prospects, just from a different subset of players. In the mid 90’s, there was a rush to sign Asian pitchers once Hideo Nomo and Chan Ho Park became All-Stars. Sure, there were some hits after the initial signings, but who can forget Hideki Irabu signing for 8.6 times what Park made in 1997 and quickly fizzling out? Or the promise of both Mac Suzuki and Masato Yoshii that were never developed?
Then, there was the rush on signing the best Asian hitters – for every Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, there were several Chin-Feng Chen‘s and Hee-Seop Choi‘s. Much like the secret got about the players of Japan and Korea being great fits in the Majors, the secret is now out about the talent that Cuba has produced.
All bubbles burst: real estate, the stock market, and Beanie Babies. Heck, many of us, myself included, probably have stacks of Gem Mint 10 Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa rookie cards that Don West sold us or Kevin Maas, Jim Abbott, and J.T. Snow before them.
The Cuban bubble burst is about to burst. The Eleutherodactylus Iberia may have already been found but it won’t stop teams from searching and paying top dollar for the chance of finding the next Eleutherodactylus Iberia.
The upcoming free agent crop likely does not have anyone like Castillo and Castillo, without a doubt, is the Phillies’ best chance to obtain a player that is an above-average contributor. But they will be entering the market at a time when 28 out of 30 MLB teams have seen Castillo workout and are being sent to negotiations by old-school owners with the instructions “we can’t miss on the next Puig”.
I am certainly not saying Castillo will not be a productive Major Leaguer. By all accounts, the team that signs him will have found a ready-to-go player that contribute from day one outside of the normal routes of scouting, drafting, developing, or pursuing free agent talent. But the secret is out and the signing team will have to pay a premium for what could be an average player much like Irabu, Chen, and Choi were during their runs in the Majors.
The advantages of signing a player like Puig or Cespedes are now gone. The secret is out and the fair market value he will receive will erase any surplus value he can create unless he is truly a superstar. Much like Irabu, Castillo will be paid, handsomely, by his new team. Yes, the team will likely receive an outstanding player, but the Phillies, as presently constructed with their current budget, will not be a winner and this is a risk the team would be bold at best and dumb at worst to take.