The Atlanta Braves and veteran free-agent catcher A.J. Pierzynski have agreed to terms on a one-year deal worth about $2 million pending a physical, according to a report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Pierzynski signed with the Cardinals in July after being released by the Red Sox, where he was having the worst offensive season of his career. He started 19 games while Yadier Molina was sidelined two months with a torn ligament in his right thumb. He finished the regular season hitting .251 with five home runs, 37 RBIs and .625 OPS. The 37-year-old was added to the Cardinals' roster for the NLCS and went 1-for-6 in two postseason games.
It is believed Pierzynski is being brought in to mentor prospect Christian Bethancourt, with Evan Gattis moving to become the Braves' full-time left fielder. However, MLB.com reports trading Gattis had not been ruled out.
ESPNBoston.com poll say they would not consider the offseason a success if the team did not add a No. 1 starter.
Looking strictly at free-agent possibilities, the only two remaining starters on the market you could legitimately call an ace are Max Scherzer and James Shields. You can forget about Scherzer. If the Sox weren’t going to pony up the $155 million for Jon Lester, you can be sure they aren’t going to meet the asking price for Scherzer, which is projected to be much higher.
So that leaves Shields, a reliable, solid starter who has a more than respectable 42-27 record and a 3.29 ERA over the past three seasons. He’s expected to command a five-year deal for between $90-100 million, a contract that would take him through age 37.
Is he worth signing for that price and for that many years?
ESPN SweetSpot blogger David Shoenfield, for one, believes he is not, for two primary reasons: 1) History tells us pitchers approaching their late 30s are not nearly as valuable as they were in their early 30s. 2) If the Red Sox wait until next offseason to add an ace, they would theoretically be picking from a stronger field that could include David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann and possibly Zack Greinke.
In a separate piece, ESPN Baseball Insider Jim Bowden handicapped the race for Shields, in which he surprisingly gives the Red Sox surprisingly high 5-to-1 odds to land the pitcher.
Here’s an excerpt from his reasoning:
Shields would fill the pitching leadership void that has been vacant since the Lester deal; his mentorship of the Red Sox's young pitchers could make overpaying to get him worthwhile here. A rotation of Shields, Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, Wade Miley and Rick Porcello would make the Red Sox the favorites to win the AL East, in my mind. That said, this is the type of free agent the Red Sox normally offer at least one year less than other teams on the market, which could cost them Shields.
What’s your take? Would you like to see the Red Sox add Shields at the projected 5-year, $100 million price tag?
The award for long and meritorious service to baseball is named for Judge Emil Fuchs, the former owner of the Boston Braves. Past winners of the silver platter awarded since 1959 include Hank Aaron, Marvin Miller and Ernie Harwell.
In a 17-year career with the Dodgers, Montreal Expos, Red Sox, Mets and Phillies, Martinez posted a 219-100 record with a 2.93 ERA. He was the Cy Young Award winner in 1997 with Montreal and in 1999 and 2000 with the Red Sox.
The award will be presented to Martinez on Jan. 22 at the Boston BBWAA's annual dinner at Boston University's Agganis Arena.
Hanigan wasn't drafted. He wasn't drafted out of Rollins (Fla.) College, either. He played in the Cape Cod League, but the hometown Sox showed no interest. The Cincinnati Reds did, and signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2002. In 2006, coincidentally, he and Asadoorian were teammates again, on Cincinnati's Double-A team in Chattanooga. A year later, Hanigan was in the big leagues. And on Saturday afternoon, after being traded twice in the span of 24 hours, he was on a media conference call with Boston Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, being introduced as the team's newest catcher.
"I grew up here -- my parents, my sister all still live here," Hanigan said Saturday. "A bunch of nieces and nephews in the area. I grew up watching the Red Sox, you can't around here not. That's the team, we're die-hard growing up. All my nieces and nephews were a little bit jaded throughout the years wearing Cincinnati and Tampa Bay uniforms, and now they're pumped they can rock the Red Sox stuff with pride. I'm looking forward to it. It's a prideful thing for me to be in the area to play for this team and it's a great opportunity."
Cherington said the Sox had inquired about Hanigan last winter but did not match up with the Reds, who traded him to the Rays while the Sox signed A.J. Pierzynski. This offseason, the Sox were still negotiating with David Ross to return as backup catcher to Christian Vazquez until the past couple of days, when new Padres GM A.J. Preller called and said San Diego was about to acquire Hanigan and asked whether the Sox would be interested. Preller had been talking off and on with the Sox for third baseman Will Middlebrooks, and in Hanigan, he now had the piece that Cherington would take in exchange. Ross, meanwhile, came to terms on a two-year, $5 million deal with the Cubs.
"When we think about Vazquez being one catcher and who that second catcher would be, what criteria would we be looking for, we feel like Ryan checks just about all the boxes," Cherington said. "Very good defender, game-caller, really well respected, gives a tough at-bat, certainly capable of playing a lot, has played a lot in certain seasons.
"It wouldn't have mattered to us, the fact that he is from the area, but obviously that's a nice bonus. Once we had a chance to get Ryan, it just came together fairly quickly."
Hanigan, who shared catching duties in Cincinnati, where he served as personal catcher first to Bronson Arroyo and then to ace Johnny Cueto, was expected to assume the majority of the catching load for the Rays last season. But for the second straight season, he served two stints on the DL, hamstring and oblique injuries limiting him to just 84 games for Tampa Bay. He posted a .218/.318/.324/.642 slash line, well below his career numbers of .256/.353/.341/.694.
Hanigan said he has taken steps in his training to try and prevent injuries, and did not sound like a man who plans to come to spring training conceding the top spot to Vazquez. Given his outstanding reputation defensively, which includes throwing out runners at 38 percent while excelling at pitch blocking and framing, it's conceivable that he and Vazquez could wind up splitting the catching down the middle. It shouldn't be ruled out that whichever catcher hits might get the majority of playing time. Hanigan is signed through 2016 with an option for 2017, hardly the norm for a straight backup.
"For me, from where I'm coming from, I want to play as much as I can, obviously," Hanigan said. "I have a lot of confidence in my game and what I can bring. Like I said, I'm happy to be a part of this team. I just want to win. Whatever role that is for me, it's all good.
"I'm definitely looking forward to working with you guys, with the staff and getting to know these pitchers and trying to take it to the next level with them all and know them all a little bit better. That's my job and I take a lot of pride in that. You have to be healthy on the field as often as possible to be able to really do that job to the best of your abilities. I've spent a lot of time this winter trying to get myself to where I can be the guy that I want to be and catch as many games as I did, say, in 2012 or 2011 or whatever, and get to where I can really get rolling."
Ryan Hanigan, said the Sox are "not actively engaged with anything right now" regarding the team's starting staff.
"We like the direction the team is headed in," he said. "I think it's more likely if we add anywhere, it's the bullpen, between now and spring training."
Since the start of the offseason, the Red Sox have traded for left-hander Wade Miley and right-hander Rick Porcello and signed right-handed free agent Justin Masterson. In July, the Sox traded for right-hander Joe Kelly. Clay Buchholz is the only holdover from the rotation that started the 2014 season. Lester signed as a free agent, and John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront have all been traded.
If the newcomers in some order comprise the rotation that opens the 2015 season, Cherington insists the club would be satisfied, a view that is not universally shared.
"As I've mentioned before, we don't look at just those five guys. We think we're pretty well set up with young pitching behind those five guys we've mentioned. Rotations are rarely static ... but if things happened, we feel we have the depth to deal with that. We'll keep an open mind."
The trades for Miley and Porcello and the signing of Masterson all happened within the same week that Lester came to terms on a six-year, $145 million deal with the Cubs, plus a $10 million buyout and vesting option for a seventh year. Given that none of Boston's projected starting five has ever headed a staff, there has been widespread speculation that the Sox might engage with free agents Shields or Scherzer, or make a deal for Hamels or Cueto. That could still take place -- Cherington's words could be construed as posturing -- but the GM definitely tamped down expectations of another move.
The possibility also remains that the Sox will revisit the issue at the trade deadline, when pitchers like Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and David Price -- all of whom will be eligible for free agency after the season -- might be made available in a deal.
Breslow became a free agent when the Red Sox declined his $4 million option for 2015. But general manager Ben Cherington had made it clear from the outset of the offseason that re-signing Breslow was viable due to their conviction that his subpar 2014 season was not emblematic of his body of work.
The deal is pending a physical, Baratta said.
WEEI.com earlier reported the agreement.
Baratta had stressed Breslow's superior performance relative to other free agent left-handed relievers in his presentation to clubs. Breslow had the lowest career ERA (3.20) in that group, the lowest hits per nine (7.99), the lowest WHIP (1.29, tied with Joe Thatcher), and the lowest opponents' batting average (.234). He also was second in left on base percentage (75.9 percent) and second in number of days spent on the disabled list.
Breslow followed what was his best season (2013) with what was unarguably his worst, when he posted a 5.96 ERA in 60 appearances, with all of his peripherals just as bad. The 34-year-old left-hander was in San Diego at the winter meetings to make his case to interested clubs.
BOSTON -- Say this for the Boston Red Sox: They know how to save on the overhead.
On Monday, the Chicago Cubs introduced Jon Lester. Wrigley Field did not suffice for the occasion. The Cubs rented out a trendy Italian bistro on Michigan Avenue. Lester's wife and two kids were there. His parents were there. His wife's parents were there. The owner of the Cubs was in the back of the room, along with most of the front office. Lester wore an expensive suit. So did Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. The news conference, with dozens of media types in attendance, was aired on live TV. Lunch was catered by the restaurant.
The deal is for two years and $5 million, a source told ESPN Chicago's Jesse Rogers.
Fox Sports earlier reported the deal.
Lester had a 2.02 ERA with Ross catching in 2014 and a 2.77 ERA overall in those 29 games.
Lester has had some of his best success recently with Ross behind the plate, and the two would bring championship experience, as they helped the Red Sox to a title in 2013.
Ross made $3.1 million last season, so he is an affordable option while the Cubs groom 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber.
Ross hit .184 with seven home runs and 15 RBIs in 50 games last season for Boston.
Third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who earlier this month acknowledged there was no apparent fit for him on the Boston Red Sox after the club signed free agent Pablo Sandoval, will have a chance to restart his career in San Diego.
Hanigan's acquisition closes the door on free agent David Ross returning to the Red Sox. Ross texted word Friday that he had signed with the Cubs, where he will join pitcher Jon Lester, who threw to him in 18 of his 21 starts for Boston last season before being traded to Oakland. Ross agreed to a two-year deal for $5 million, a source confirmed to Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com. CBSSports.com had reported earlier that Ross was signing with San Diego, before retracting that and saying he was deciding between the Cubs and Padres.
The Red Sox and Padres announced the Middlebrooks-Hanigan trade Friday night.
The Red Sox have now lost 14 of the 25 players that were on their Opening Day roster in 2014, a dramatic turnover from a team that won a World Series just 14 months ago.
But, hypothetically, say the Red Sox offered Lester a deal similar to the one Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee got as a free agent in 2010 -- five years, $120 million. Would Lester have taken that deal?
"You go back in time and you look at it and you go, 'Probably, yes,' Lester said Thursday night in an appearance on WEEI's Hot Stove show. "But you don't know. It's one of those deals where when it's sitting in front of you, that's a lot of money to turn down. That would have made it very difficult to turn down."
Instead, after being traded to the Oakland Athletics at the trade deadline, Lester made it to free agency once the season was over, signing a six-year, $155 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. The Red Sox's final offer was for six years and $135 million, a value general manager Ben Cherington described as the best the team could do.
Although many feel the Red Sox's initial offer to Lester was an insult -- especially given how high the market went after the season -- Lester said he was in no way insulted by the offer.
"I think that's an easy topic to pick on for a lot of people. We're all men. We all understand what they were trying to do. By no means was I insulted. By no means were my feelings hurt," Lester said. "They had a game plan and we had a game plan and we went into it with our plans. Just, for whatever reason, we couldn't get anything done before the  season started."
BOSTON -- A 22-year-old woman who fell two stories down an elevator shaft at Fenway Park and was seriously injured is suing the owner of the Boston Red Sox and an elevator company.
Elisabeth Scotland, of Brigantine, New Jersey, sued Wednesday in Superior Court in Boston against Fenway Sports Group and Otis Elevator Co. of Farmington, Connecticut. The suit seeks unspecified damages.
The suit says Scotland fell when a closed elevator door opened when she brushed up against it, and she suffered a traumatic brain injury, spinal injuries, facial fractures and dental damage.
A Red Sox spokesperson declined to comment on the accident, but said all Fenway Park elevators are safe and the team wishes Scotland well.
Otis Elevator officials said they are reviewing the lawsuit. They declined further comment.
Welcome to everyone's favorite division -- or least favorite, depending on your opinion of the Yankees and Red Sox. In the past five years, four different teams have won the division. The exception is Toronto, and the Blue Jays now have the longest playoff drought in the majors, having last reached the postseason in 1993. You may remember how that season ended.
Everybody says the AL East isn't as strong as it once was. That's true. The Yankees haven't made the playoffs the past two seasons and the Red Sox have suffered two terrible seasons sandwiching a World Series title. But it wasn't the worst division in baseball this past season. The AL East was a collective 12 games over .500 outside the division; only the AL West, at plus-13, was better.
In what appears to be a wide-open race, each team doesn't have to stretch the imagination to find a path to the playoffs.
2014: 96-66, plus-112 run differential, lost ALCS
2015 projection from FanGraphs: 79-83, minus-18 runs
After winning their first division title since 1997 and drawing their most fans since 2005, the Orioles have responded by doing ... nothing. They've lost Nelson Cruz to the Mariners and Nick Markakis to the Braves and the biggest news was the rumor that general manager Dan Duquette was a candidate for the Blue Jays' presidency, only to see owner Peter Angelos politely remind him that he has a contract through the 2018 season.
Replacing the production from Cruz and Markakis will be a challenge, but those two also missed just a combined 10 games; replacing their presence may be the bigger challenge. While Manny Machado and Matt Wieters missed time with season-ending injuries and then Chris Davis got suspended for amphetamines, Cruz, Markakis and Adam Jones were the rocks manager Buck Showalter wrote into his lineup every day.
But they're not irreplaceable. They were worth a combined 6.8 WAR via Baseball-Reference, and Cruz wasn't a good bet to repeat his 40-homer, 4.7-WAR performance anyway. Yes, the outfield looks a little barren to Jones' left and right, with Alejandro De Aza and David Lough the best candidates to start now, with Steve Pearce, hot off his surprising 2014 performance, filling in if he's not the DH. I suspect the O's will make an addition here, whether it's signing Norichika Aoki or trading for Marlon Byrd or maybe even Justin Upton. Colby Rasmus is also an interesting buy-low free agent.
How do the O's return to the playoffs? As you can see, the projection system used at FanGraphs foresees a big decline, but some of that is the way the system views the Orioles' rotation. It's not a strikeout rotation, which outperformed its periperhals in 2014, so the system sees regression. The O's were fifth in the AL in rotation ERA and had the second-best ERA after the All-Star break. They just need to maintain and rely on that great infield defense to help out.
There is the possibility, however, that the rotation does improve. Kevin Gausman should spend the entire season in the rotation for the first time, and he has potential to develop into a No. 1 or 2 starter. Dylan Bundy is healthy, and the top prospect could make an impact at some point. Plus, there is depth here in numbers. Unlike other teams, the Orioles can afford the inevitable injury attrition.
There are four primary reasons the offense can pick up after Cruz and Markakis:
1. Davis rebounds. An MVP candidate in 2013 after hitting 53 home runs, his OPS fell 300 points. The Steamer projection foresees a .242 average with 32 home runs, or about a two-win upgrade from 2014 (although still four wins below his 2013 level). The upside, of course, is even higher.
2. Wieters returns. He was off to the best season of his career when he went down in late May and had Tommy John surgery. He'll give the team more offense at catcher and be able to DH on his off days.
3. Jonathan Schoop improves. Rushed to the majors, he hit .209/.244/.354. His power (16 home runs) was a bright spot, but he has to improve his 122/13 strikeout/walk ratio.
4. Machado plays more games. He appeared in just 82 last year before injuring his knee.
The projections don't like the Orioles. But they didn't like them this past season, and Baltimore won 96 games.
New York Yankees
2014: 84-78, minus-31 run differential
2015 projection: 83-79, plus-17
Odd fact: The Yankees became the first team to get outscored in consecutive seasons and finish over .500 both years.
Prediction: It won't happen three years in a row. Which means the Yankees have to score more runs and/or allow fewer just to stay at 84 wins.
So far, they lost closer David Robertson but signed Andrew Miller, coming off his season of destruction. They re-signed third baseman Chase Headley and pitcher Chris Capuano and acquired shortstop Didi Gregorius from Arizona. Yankees fans will be thrilled to see what a shortstop who can go to his left actually looks like. Oh, and Alex Rodriguez returns to baseball. He's not the reason to predict a path to the playoffs.
Yes, you read that correctly. I'd say Scherzer would make for a pretty nice No. 5 starter. The list of potential suitors for the ace right-hander is limited, given his reported asking price of $200 million, give or take a small mansion. The Yankees say they're not interested. The Yankees always say they aren't interested until they are. They have the money if they want to spend it: Their projected payroll right now is $38 million less than the Dodgers' payroll, and there's no reason they can't spend what the Dodgers are spending, so that leaves plenty of room to sign Scherzer and still have money left over for a nice dinner at NYY Steak.
Anyway: Scherzer, a healthy CC, a healthy Tanaka, a full season from Pineda ... that's a scary rotation.
Beyond that: Full seasons from Headley and Martin Prado and the addition of Gregorius will make the infield much better (don't be surprised if Gregorius even outhits 2014 Derek Jeter); Brian McCann, just 31, is certainly capable of a better season; Carlos Beltran is getting up there in age (37), but Steamer projects better numbers for him; Jacoby Ellsbury's first year in the Bronx was so-so; and Dellin Betances and Miller -- 6-foot-8 and 6-7, respectively -- may be the most intimidating bullpen duo in the majors.
There are obviously injury concerns with Sabathia, Tanaka and Pineda. But we keep trying to kill off the Yankees and they haven't completely capitulated just yet. If that group stays healthy and they bring in Scherzer to lead the way, it could be the Yankees in the East.
Toronto Blue Jays
2014: 83-79, plus-37 run differential
2015 projection: 84-78, plus-29
Nobody can hit these days. The Angels led the majors with 773 runs. In 2009, that would have ranked 12th. In 2004, that would have ranked 18th. So teams are starving for offense.
But the Blue Jays have hitters. Among players with 400 plate appearances, Jose Bautista ranked fifth in the majors in wOBA (weighted on-base average, a metric that captures a players complete hitting performance); Edwin Encarnacion was 12th; Russell Martin 19th; and Josh Donaldson (48th), with the A's last season, now moves to a better hitter's park. Bautista and Martin ranked third and fourth in OBP; Bautista, Encarnacion and Donaldson all ranked in the top 12 in home runs.
No, 2015 isn't 2014, but that projects as the best middle of the order in the majors.
Did I mention Josh Donaldson? He ranks second in Baseball-Reference WAR among position players the past two seasons, behind only Mike Trout. How can you not get all dreamy over that trade if you're the Blue Jays? Donaldson was about four wins above average last season; Blue Jays third basemen were about average, so Donaldson is a four-win upgrade, given similar rates of production.
The Jays lost Melky Cabrera via free agency but made a sneaky good pickup in Michael Saunders, a guy who could have a big season as he leaves the marine layer in the Pacific Northwest. If he stays healthy, don't be surprised if he replaces Cabrera's value -- less average, but a little more power and better defense.
Everyone says the Jays don't have an ace -- not that you need an ace to make the postseason. But maybe they do have one: Marcus Stroman may be only 5-9 but he had a big rookie season, posting a 3.65 ERA in 130.2 innings. His FIP was even better, at 2.84. He has six pitches and throws hard and throws strikes. Don't be surprised if he's a top-10 starter in the AL.
Drew Hutchison had a fine season in his return from Tommy John surgery; he'll do better than 11-13 with a 4.48 ERA. Veterans Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey provide durability and stability. Lefty Daniel Norris, one of the best pitching prospects in the game, jumped from Class A to the majors after striking out 163 in 124.2 innings; he could be this year's Stroman. Aaron Sanchez looks like a shutdown reliever the team needs after allowing just 14 hits in 33 innings after his recall to the majors.
The Jays could use a second baseman, maybe free agent Asdrubal Cabrera, which would mean a lineup something like this:
SS Jose Reyes
C Russell Martin
RF Jose Bautista
1B Edwin Encarnacion
3B Josh Donaldson
LF Michael Saunders
2B Asdrubal Cabrera
DH Dioner Navarro/Justin Smoak
CF Dalton Pompey
That's an offense that can score runs. The 22-year-old drought may be over.
Tampa Bay Rays
2014: 77-85, minus-13 run differential
2015 projection: 83-79, plus-13
Everyone seems down on the Rays. David Price is gone, Matt Joyce was shipped out, Wil Myers just got dealt and manager Joe Maddon opted out of his contract. The Rays can't spend like the big boys and they're coming off their worst season since they were the Devil Rays.
A few reasons to believe in a path to the playoffs:
1. The rotation could still be the best in the league. Alex Cobb -- with a 2.82 ERA the past two seasons -- has an argument as the best starter in the division. The Rays have four starters lining up behind Cobb and coming into their own at the same time: Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore (coming off Tommy John surgery).
2. Evan Longoria will return to being an MVP candidate.
3. They'll hit better with runners in scoring position. They hit .241 with runners in scoring position this past season, including the worst wOBA with the bases loaded in the AL. Both figures were below their overall season totals, so expect some of that bad luck to reverse.
4. Ben Zobrist is still a good player.
5. Nick Franklin may become a good player.
6. They traded Myers but picked up a guy named Steven Souza from the Nationals. After crushing Triple-A pitching, he projects to be just as good as Myers, if not slightly better.
7. Catcher Rene Rivera, acquired from the Padres in the three-way deal that sent them Myers, is one of the best pitch-framers in the business. And he will hit better than the dearly departed Jose Molina.
8. That projection above suggests the Rays will be in the race (it doesn't include Wednesday's trade). Given the potential of the rotation, the Rays can win 90 again, just like they did in each from 2010 to 2013.
Boston Red Sox
2014: 71-91, minus-81 run differential
2015 projection: 87-75, plus-53 runs
Boston's busy offseason has been much discussed. Many believe the Red Sox still need to pick up another starter to anchor the rotation, but FanGraphs already projects them as the best team in the division.
That may be surprising after this past season's last-place finish, but general manager Ben Cherington has done a nice job reconstructing his starting rotation. Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson aren't flashy but should be a durable and reliable trio (especially if Masterson's knee, which bothered him in 2014, is healthy).
1. Mookie Betts, All-Star. Yes, he's that good.
2. Xander Bogaerts, All-Star. His rookie season was a disappointment. He also just turned 22. It all comes together this year.
3. Rusney Castillo does the job in center field with a solid all-around season (that 87-win projection actually includes Castillo being only a replacement-level player).
4. David Ortiz has one more big season.
5. Pablo Sandoval thrives, hitting doubles off the Green Monster.
6. Hanley Ramirez is motivated and healthy and hits and plays left field at least as well as Manny Ramirez did. OK, better than Manny.
7. Dustin Pedroia goes back to hitting .290-.300 with 15-20 home runs.
8. One or two of the young pitching prospects -- Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, Eduardo Rodriguez, Anthony Ranaudo -- makes a big impact, either in the rotation or bullpen.
And then they may add Cole Hamels, or trade for a starter during the season ...
“I think he’s going to be an everyday player next season, no doubt about it," Cora said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “He’s going to play, and play well."
Cora’s impressions extend beyond Castillo’s skill set.
“When you have a high-profile import, usually they show up, they play, they leave," Cora said. “They don’t mingle, they could care less about teammates. With Rusney, it’s the total opposite. He’s been like an independent league pitcher who really cares about winning. He pays attention to the game, he wants to win. He’s doing everything possible to help us win games."
When Castillo injured his thumb while playing in the Arizona Fall League, Cora thought the Red Sox might elect to shut down the center fielder, and told Cherington he would understand if they did. But satisfied that the thumb had healed, Cherington opted to have Castillo go to Puerto Rico, where he has been for nearly three weeks. In his first seven games, Castillo is batting .320 (8-for-25) with a home run, stolen base and a walk. Cora has had him batting leadoff and playing center field.
“Defensively, he's been very impressive in center field," Cora said. “His instincts are great, the jumps he gets. He’s very light on his feet. Luis Matos, who played center field for Baltimore, is my hitting coach and outfield instructor, and he’s very impressed. Luis was a good outfielder.
“Offensively, he's still learning, still working on a few things. It's tough to come here midway through it. The range of stuff he’s facing goes from north to south. There are guys throwing 95 and guys throwing 82 with sinkers and sliders. But he adjusts. I really like [that] he hasn't tried to pull the ball. The only ball he tried to pull was a breaking ball that he hit for a home run to left-center. He’s been strong to the right-center gap. Of his eight hits, six have been up the middle. That’s the sign of a good hitter not trying to do too much.
“He’ll rub a few people the wrong way when he’s running from home to first. It looks like he’s not running fast. He doesn't get out of the box clean; his finish doesn't let him do that, so a lot of people may think he’s dogging to first. But first to third, second to the plate, whoa, this kid can run."
The Red Sox signed Castillo to a six-year, $72 million contract last August, so they have a pretty good feel for his on-field tools. Their knowledge of him otherwise is by necessity limited, given the prohibition on major league scouts working in Cuba. They should be heartened to hear of the positive impression Castillo has made on Cora, who also works for ESPN’s "Baseball Tonight" as an analyst, in how he approaches his job and his teammates, and how he conducts himself off the field.
“He’s more advanced than what people think," Cora said, "not only on the field but off the field. He’s a very organized kid, a family kid. He understands the whole process. Most of the time when you bring in somebody like him, he needs a driver, he needs someone who will follow him around. He needs an entourage with him.
“It’s the other way around with him. When we get imports, we put them at first in a hotel near the ballpark until they learn to drive around here. After that they usually rent a place in San Juan, about a half hour from here. Rusney, the first thing he wanted to know was, how do I get here, how do I get there, without needing anybody. He learned in two days how to get from his apartment to the ballpark, his apartment to other stadiums. He is here in an apartment with his wife.
“He’s not a prima donna. He’s just like the other guys. He shows up on time, he works out, and off the field I’m very impressed with the way he acts and who he is," said Cora.
Cora does not know Puig personally, but is well aware of the polarizing opinions that Puig has inspired in his short time with the Dodgers, some dazzled by his skills but turned off by the way he handles himself. One of Cora’s coaches, Miguel Negron, was still playing for Mayaguez when Puig joined the team.
“Miguel told us the other day that they are total opposites," Cora said. “Yasiel came down here, Miguel said he was tough, he didn't know how to act, it was all about him. This kid [Castillo] shows up and plays. That’s it."
Cora, whose Criollos de Caguas are in first place with a 20-10 record, gave his players credit for being so accepting when Castillo first arrived. But he was just as impressed by Castillo’s response.
“He clicked with the guys," Cora said. “Yeah, they're a great group of guys, but he’s not just another import. He’s a guy making $72 million. They opened their arms, but he was willing to jell with them. That’s the sign of a good guy and a good teammate."
Cora says that when he looks down the dugout bench, he sees Castillo either talking to a younger teammate or asking questions of a veteran.
"Besides the physical tools, he gets it," Cora said. “He gets baseball. It’s his passion. It’s what he lives. [Sox fans] will love him. It’s 24 hours, 7 days a week, nonstop baseball for him. He’ll be OK there."
The benefit of playing winter ball for someone like Castillo goes beyond gaining repetitions at the plate and in the field. It’s also about learning to function in a structured environment, developing a routine, learning all the little things that go into being a big-leaguer, including interacting with clubhouse attendants. Caguas is the continuation of a process that began for Castillo in the Gulf Coast Rookie League with Lazaro Gutierrez, the Sox player development coordinator who played with Cora on a 1996 University of Miami team that made it to the finals of the College World Series.
“He’s learned how to tip," Cora said with a laugh. “There are a lot of happy people around here."
The one area where Castillo still needs to play catch-up is in his mastery of English. His use of the language is still very limited.
“He needs to get better and he knows it," Cora said. “The way it looks, [Dustin] Pedroia needs to learn Spanish."