Yesterday morning began with some big, big news in the international baseball community: the Gurriel brothers (Yulieski and Lourdes, previously known as Yulieski Gourriel and Lourdes Gourriel before losing an o) have defected from Cuba and are seeking major league contracts. The Gurriel brothers have long been considered to be two of the best international players not currently playing in MLB, and for them to both be approaching the market at the same time is a huge deal.
The Gurriel name has been associated with Cuban baseball for a long time. Yulieski and Lourdes’ older brother, Yunieski, also played baseball for the Serie Nacional. Their father, Lourdes Gurriel Sr played and coached for the international team. Several of their relatives also played. Due to the long bloodlines, it was long assumed that the brothers would not defect without permission from their government. However, there is potential precedent that the players were “allowed” to leave, much like the rumors that surrounded Yoan Moncada‘s mysterious defection a year ago.
Let’s start with the older brother. Yulieski Gurriel is nothing short of a star. He has long been seen as the best player in Cuba, often drawing comparisons to Adrian Beltre. Baseball America has also compared him to David Wright and Hanley Ramirez. Basically, he’s good. Really good. Those comparisons should turn heads, even if he’s already 31.
Yulieski has big power: he has hit 245 homers in parts of 15 seasons in Cuba, and hit 14 during a short stint in Japan. Here’s all of the homers from the other side of the Pacific:
And, care of Baseball America, some more dingers from Cuba, along with a couple of defensive plays:
According to Baseball America’s write-up on the Gurriel brothers’ defections, Yulieski was hitting an eye-popping .494/.586/.861 in his first 215 plate appearances in the Serie Nacional this year. In the first 106 plate appearances of that season, he had 15 walks and one strikeout. He has hit for an overall .333/.414/.577 line in Cuba (keep in mind that these stats date back to when he was 17). He doesn’t walk much, but the power and above-average contact skills make up for it. Against more advanced competition in Japan, Gurriel hit .305/.349/.536 for the Yokohama BayStars in 258 plate appearances. All of that, and he plays good defense at third base? Yes please.
Speaking of Japan and injuries, it also leads to one of the bigger concerns about Yulieski: makeup. The BayStars re-signed Yulieski (and were planning on adding Lourdes as well) for 2015, but things got pretty messy, as the indispensable Yakyubaka describes:
Yokohama general manager Shigeru Takada told reporters today that the organization terminated its contract with Yulieski Gurriel because they were not sure when he was going to arrive. Gurriel was supposed come to Japan on March 24, but hurt his right hamstring while playing in Cuba and refused to leave his country while hurt.
The BayStars sent a representative to Cuba to try to figure out what was happening, but Gurriel refused to report and the BayStars terminated the contracts of both Gurriel brothers. There have been other quiet rumblings about other issues, such as lower effort in international play, but nothing with much concrete evidence. It shouldn’t keep the Dodgers (or any other team) away from his incredible talent, but it’s worth mentioning in passing.
Yulieski Gurriel should be in line for a pretty sizable payday, once he’s allowed to become a free agent by MLB. The $62.5MM contract that the Dodgers signed with Hector Olivera is probably a good comparison. Olivera was about two years younger than Gurriel when he signed, but Yulieski is also a much safer bet. He’s a better player and doesn’t have the same long injury-prone history as the former Dodger. The bat is legitimate, and he’ll get rewarded for it.
It’s pretty easy to envision an scenario in which the Dodgers are major players for the elder Gurriel. It will likely take some months for him to be cleared to sign with an MLB team (and he will not be subject to MLB’s international bonus pools). By that time, perhaps later into this season, Justin Turner‘s impending free agency will be looming. The best MLB free agent at third base next year, other than Turner and Adrian Beltre (who likely won’t hit the free market), is Luis Valbuena. Gurriel has a chance to have a significantly higher impact than that, and he’s the type of talent which teams need to make room for.
Lourdes Gurriel is much younger than his brother, and as a result he doesn’t have the same track record. He’s also considered to be a step below him in present value, which is nothing to be ashamed of at 22 years old. Lourdes has a relatively meager .269/.355/.414 batting line in parts of four Cuban seasons, but in the last two campaigns he has hit .308/.388/.466 and .321/.387/.537. Like his brother, Lourdes is not easy to strike out, but he hasn’t quite developed the same power. He makes up for that with a more patient eye at the plate.
Lourdes started off in the Serie Nacional as an infielder, playing first, second, and shortstop. Scouts think he has the ability to play third as well, but he has been blocked by his brother since they play for the same team. In recent years, Lourdes has also played an above-average corner outfield. This type of positional flexibility can be extremely desirable, particularly since according to scouting reports, he has looked extremely competent wherever he’s been placed.
Lourdes’ age makes his signing situation pretty complicated. He’s 22 years old now, and turns 23 on October 19th. His age would make him subject until the international bonus pools until his birthday, at which point the pools would no longer apply since he’s played more than five seasons in the Serie Nacional. His potential contract, if he were to sign before his birthday, would likely not be dissimilar to the $31.5MM deal that Yoan Moncada signed last March. Moncada was further away from being major-league ready (though is likely a better prospect), but he signed a deal for less than what people were expecting.
If Lourdes is ready to sign before the July 2 period re-starts, that’s the best-case scenario for the Dodgers, if they were to target him. It’s certainly easy to make the case that they should, given his talent and versatility. The Dodgers would only be competing with a limited subset of teams, those who are already over their spending cap or those who are both able and willing to push themselves over it. However, if Lourdes were to sign between July 2 and his birthday on October 19th, the Dodgers would be completely unable to bid.
The most likely scenario at this point would be that Lourdes will sign after his birthday, which would probably land him the largest deal, since teams won’t have to pay extra tax and all teams would be eligible to sign him. The extra year of development time lost would be a disappointment, but he has so much raw baseball talent that he would still be well worth the potentially $50MM+ outlay.
The arrival of the Gurriel brothers has been a day long awaited in international baseball circles. There was skepticism that this day would come, but it has happened and has the potential to disrupt several major league rosters. It’s very rare that this much talent will be made available at one time, and it’s easy to see the Dodgers finding room for either of these extremely talented players on their roster later this year or early in 2017.
Now, about Alfredo Despaigne…