Alex Cora, who played 14 seasons in the big leagues, including four with the Red Sox, on Wednesday gave a strong endorsement to Rusney Castillo, the Cuban outfielder who is playing for Cora in Puerto Rico as he prepares for his first spring training with the Red Sox.
“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."
Cora, whose playing career ended when he was released by the Cardinals in spring training 2012, is in his first season of managing Caguas, his hometown team in the Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente, the winter league on the island. He also has served as GM for the past three seasons, and after Castillo signed with the Red Sox in August, Cora texted Sox GM Ben Cherington, offering Caguas as a place where Castillo could get some playing time. Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, like Castillo a native of Cuba, had come to Puerto Rico in 2012 and played for Mayaguez in preparation for his first season, so Cora expected Cherington would be looking to place Castillo as well.
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."