Yulieski Gurriel and his brother, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., each defected from Cuba while the Cuban National Team was in the Dominican Republic this past weekend, Jorge Ebro of El Nuevo Herald first reported. Sources tell MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez the same — the brothers are “believed” to have defected from Cuba.Each will seek a contract with a Major League team, placing two of the most highly regarded international players on the planet in the mix for MLB clubs to pursue.
Yulieski, 31, was ranked by Baseball America’s Ben Badler as the No. 1 player remaining in Cuba. The third baseman is a career .333/.414/.577 hitter as a professional and has enjoyed success in both Cuba and, recently, Japan. The elder of the two brothers that defected (the oldest Gurriel brother, Yunieski Gurriel, apparently did not join his younger siblings) was recently allowed to play in Nippon Professional Baseball, where he batted .305/.349/.536 with 11 homers in 62 games for the Yokohama Bay Stars. Thus far in the 2015-16 Cuban season, Yulieski was batting a ludicrous .535/.604/1.012 with 10 homers in 106 plate appearances across 23 games.
Badler has previously praised Yulieski for his plus bat speed and plus raw power to all fields, drawing comparisons to David Wright and Hanley Ramirez from Badler last spring (prior to Ramirez’s poor debut season in Boston). He’s said to be an above-average defender at third base, where he’s best suited, but also capable of handling second base adequately. Previously, Yulieski has spoken to MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez about his desire to play in the Major Leagues, but only if he were permitted to do so legally by the Cuban government. With today’s news, that line of thinking has seemingly changed.
Because of his age and extensive professional experience, Yulieski would be free to sign with any club for any amount once he is declared a free agent by Major League Baseball. While the fact that he turns 32 years old in June places him at a disadvantage (from an earning power standpoint) as compared to the likes of Jose Abreu, Yasmany Tomas and Rusney Castillo (each of whom was in his mid-20s upon signing), Yulieski would still seem poised to command a significant Major League deal. It’s also worth noting that Hector Olivera received a $62.5MM guarantee despite being just 15 months younger than Yulieski, and while that contract looks perhaps questionable in hindsight, it does serve to illustrate that age should not stand in the way of a notable payday.
As for Lourdes, he’s still 22 years old and won’t turn 23 until October. If he signs before his 23rd birthday, Lourdes would be subject to international bonus pools. While the exact timing of his free agency isn’t 100 percent clear — we don’t know when the league will clear him — that limitation does place some restrictions on where he could sign. If he’s declared a free agent within the current signing period, Lourdes wouldn’t be able to sign with the D-backs, Angels, Rays, Red Sox or Yankees. Should he sign after July 2, the Dodgers, Royals, Giants, Cubs and Blue Jays would join that list of restricted teams, as each has exceeded its 2015-16 spending pool. Were he to wait until after Oct. 19 to sign, Lourdes would be free to sign with any club for any amount, as his age would then meet the minimum requirements for bonus pool exemption. Given the length of time it’ll take for him to be declared a free agent in the first place, Lourdes may only have to wait a few months to be exempt from bonus pools, making it seem highly likely that he’ll ultimately go that route; the difference in his amateur signing bonus and a Major League contract could easily be an eight-figure sum.
Lourdes isn’t as accomplished as his 31-year-old brother, but he’s hit well to this point in his Cuban career, batting .269/.355/.414 in 1036 Serie Nacional plate appearances. His numbers have trended significantly upward in recent seasons, though (.854 OPS in the 2014-15 season, .924 OPS in 183 2015-16 PAs). Badler most recently labeled him an eventual 20-homer threat with good strike zone knowledge, adding that from a defensive standpoint, he might be best suited to play third base in the long run, though he’s been playing shortstop regularly for the past couple of seasons. Lourdes has experience at third base, second base and in left field, however, and it seems reasonable that different teams could have varying opinions on his proficiency at each position. Presumably, a club believing that Lourdes is capable of handling shortstop, even on a short-term basis, would prefer to play him there as long as possible, though Badler notes that his range is already a bit fringy there and could worsen as his frame fills out.
Both players, of course, will need to establish residency in a new country and be declared a free agent by Major League Baseball before clubs can officially pursue them. The amount of time it takes for those steps to occur varies on a case-by-case basis, so attempting to pin down a specific time at which they’ll be able to sign, at this juncture, would be mostly guesswork.