Yulieski Gurriel officially became a free agent last week, making the Cuban star into the biggest X-factor of the summer trade market. For teams hesitant to give up young talent in a trade for a current MLB hitter, signing Gurriel would be the intriguing alternative. Why lose both premium prospects and money (in the form of a pre-existing contract) when you could just spend to sign arguably Cuba’s best player?
Of course, trading for a known MLB quantity is also the safer route, as Gurriel has a few question marks. He just turned 32 years old, so (while his recent numbers in Japan and Cuba were as impressive as ever) Gurriel is at best nearing the end of his prime years and at worst would have his decline phase hastened by higher caliber of Major League pitching. Gurriel wouldn’t be an immediate upgrade either, as he’d need at least a few weeks in the minors due to not playing in actual game conditions since defecting in February.
Rightly or wrongly, Gurriel’s stature may also be affected by the fact that several other high-profile Cuban players recently signed to big contracts (i.e. Hector Olivera, Yasmany Tomas, Rusney Castillo) have stumbled at the Major League level, while the likes of Yasiel Puig and to some extent Jose Abreu have struggled after hot starts to their MLB careers. The fact that Gurriel is significantly older and more experienced than almost all of these players could work in his favor, or it could work against him — a younger player could be seen as still able to be molded, whereas if Gurriel is too “set in his ways,” it might quickly become apparent that he isn’t cut out for a long stint in the bigs.
On the flip side, Gurriel’s track record is so impressive that he could be well worth the risk. He has a career .335/.417/.580 slash line and 250 homers over 5491 plate appearances, mostly in Serie Nacional, Cuba’s top league. Baseball America’s Ben Badler named Gurriel as Cuba’s top player in April 2015, citing his well-rounded approach to the plate, plus raw power, above-average third base defense and ability to be “playable” at second base if a Major League team wanted to use him at the keystone. Badler used Hanley Ramirez and David Wright as “similar value” comps, which certainly sets a high ceiling for Gurriel’s potential in the majors.
Olivera signed a six-year, $62.5MM deal with the Dodgers just before his 30th birthday. Though Gurriel will be over two years older when he signs his MLB contract, MLBTR’s Steve Adams recently speculated that Gurriel could land a similar deal in terms of average annual value, if not length. Something in the range of a four-year, $40-44MM contract seems like a fair estimate as a floor for Gurriel’s deal, possibly with incentive clauses or a fifth-year vesting option included.
Given that Gurriel has said that he would accept not playing with his younger brother “if the circumstances don’t permit it,” Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s market may not be too significant a factor in Yulieski’s free agency. The younger Gurriel hasn’t been declared a free agent yet, and since he doesn’t turn 23 until October 19, he still falls under international bonus pool guidelines. Assuming he doesn’t become a free agent until after the new international market opens on July 2, Lourdes’ market will be short a third of the league (the Angels, Blue Jays, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Giants, Rays, Red Sox, Royals and Yankees), as all of those teams are limited to signings of $300K or less due to past overages of the spending pool limits. While it’s certainly possible that one of the other 20 teams could look to sign both Gurriels, by this point it’s more likely that Yulieski will want to begin his MLB career soon and Lourdes will wait until October to maximize his payday…unless a team maneuvers around the international signing rules, as Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron hints.
Taking just the elder Gurriel on his own, however, let’s look at the teams who could be most likely to sign the 32-year-old to fill a need at the hot corner, second base or perhaps even left field.
FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal recently speculated that the Giants could use Gurriel in left next season if Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco leave in free agency. Perhaps more directly, Gurriel could help San Francisco at third either now or in the future, as Matt Duffy is still flashing an excellent glove but has been a sub-replacement level hitter this season.
Gurriel hasn’t played the outfield since 2005, however, so it’s probably unlikely that he would take on essentially a new position on top of all the other adjustments that he’ll face in coming to the major leagues. While the Giants are a team that could use Gurriel in left after a full offseason of preparation, we can probably write off clubs that could use a left field upgrade now but are otherwise set at third and second. By this reasoning, I’d argue the Diamondbacks, Mariners, Nationals, Red Sox and Rockies probably won’t be in on Gurriel.
Likewise, a few other contenders or non-contenders can probably also be written out due to a lack of positional need or due to the fact that they’re rebuilding: the Blue Jays, Brewers, Cardinals, Orioles, Pirates, Rangers, Rays, Tigers, Twins and Yankees.
(Bronx fans may balk at their team being included on that list given how little Chase Headley and Starlin Castro have produced, though I don’t find the Yankees to be a great match for Gurriel. Headley and Castro are respectively under contract through 2018 and 2019, and the Yankees front office is less open to eating money on contracts than in past years. As much as Gurriel may like to play for the Yankees and with former Cuban teammate Aroldis Chapman, NJ Advance Media’s Brendan Kuty notes that adding another pricey mid-30’s player doesn’t make sense for the aging Yankees roster.)
I didn’t include every rebuilding team on that list, as teams like the Braves and Reds aren’t planning on being bottom-dwellers for very long. (Atlanta, in particular, could look to contend as soon as next season when its new ballpark opens.) It would admittedly be surprising to see either Atlanta or Cincinnati sign Gurriel, though it wouldn’t be out of the question given how both clubs lack a long-term answer at third base.
It’s worth noting that the Braves and Reds are also two teams with the international pool space to make a play for Lourdes Gurriel before October, so they could aim to sign both brothers. The Braves are known to be planning a big splurge in the coming international signing period, while the Reds may already be approaching their 2016-17 pool limit due to their apparent agreement with Alfredo Rodriguez, so they could decide to make a bigger splash by pursuing Lourdes. The Phillies face a longer rebuilding period, though as Dave Cameron noted in his previously-linked piece, they could also aim to sign both Gurriel brothers and perhaps then even shop Yulieski in a year or two if he establishes himself as a quality MLB player.
The Marlins are probably set in the infield with Martin Prado at third and Derek Dietrich at second, with Dee Gordon due back from his 80-game suspension in August. Miami is usually connected to Cuban players in rumors based on geography alone, however, and there is a long-term scenario where signing Gurriel makes sense. The Fish could sign Gurriel and then trade Prado (a free agent this winter), though they are said to be loath to trade a piece from their Major League roster. Gordon’s ineligibility for postseason play looms larger with the Fish in the NL wild card hunt, so another infield upgrade isn’t out of the question.
The White Sox, A’s, Padres and Angels are all somewhat in the same boat as clubs who could perhaps be best served by a rebuild but still have an eye towards contending this year or reloading for 2017. All four teams, therefore, can’t be written out as contenders for Gurriel, especially since Todd Frazier is the only second or third baseman on any of the clubs who’s playing like a solid long-term piece (and even Frazier has slumped to near replacement-level after a hot start).
Chicago could look to move Frazier to DH given his suddenly poor defensive metrics, or the Sox could use Gurriel at second in place of the struggling Brett Lawrie. Oakland may have a sudden opening at third if Danny Valencia is traded, though while the A’s have made some big international signings in the past, they may not be able to afford Gurriel’s price tag. San Diego is another team known to be planning a big international spending spree, so the Padres could also factor into the Lourdes Gurriel package deal as well. The Angels’ woeful farm system leaves them unable to trade for big upgrades, so signing a player like Gurriel may be the best way to add a premium talent. Gurriel’s deal would likely put the Halos over the luxury tax limit for two seasons in a row, unless they can unload enough salary to get under the threshold either this year or next.
The Cubs and Astros have needs at third base now, though they’re both potentially so stocked with young talent that signing a 32-year-old may not make much sense. Chicago could sign Gurriel and then move Kris Bryant or Ben Zobrist to left, which would handle the Cubs’ need in that position. Once Kyle Schwarber returns healthy next year, however, that leaves the Cubs with a position glut. The Astros could use Gurriel now to solidify third, moving Marwin Gonzalez and Luis Valbuena into their very unsettled first base mix. For the future, Gurriel may not have a spot in Houston unless he plays DH or (like the Giants scenario) he moves to left to replace a departed free agent (in this case, Colby Rasmus). Top prospect Alex Bregman is ripping up Double-A pitching and has already seen some time at third base in preparation for a future position change since Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve have the middle infield locked down.
The Royals and Mets both have clear needs at third with Mike Moustakas and David Wright on the DL. Gurriel could step right in as Kansas City’s third baseman, and once Moustakas returns next year, Gurriel could shift to second (provided that Whit Merrifield ever comes back to Earth) or get time at DH should Kendrys Morales leave in free agency.
Gurriel could likewise play third base for New York in Wright’s absence and then be an option at second in 2017 if Neil Walker leaves in free agency. Perhaps the likelier scenario, however, is that Dilson Herrera plays second and Gurriel remains at third with Wright transitioning to first base (both to keep him healthy and for defensive reasons).
Both K.C. and New York could face issues meeting Gurriel’s price tag, however, a problem shared by the Indians — Cleveland has scouted both Gurriel brothers but probably can’t afford either. Jose Ramirez’s breakout year as a utilityman as put him in the conversation for the Tribe’s third base situation, though the club is still lacking a long-term answer. For this season, it’s more likely that the Indians will try to get by with Ramirez and Juan Uribe rather than sign Gurriel.
This leaves the Dodgers, which is perhaps fitting since they’ve expressed interest in Gurriel and have also easily been baseball’s biggest spenders in the Cuban market in recent years. L.A. has received relatively little production for all the millions spent on Cuban players, though given the franchise’s seemingly endless budget for international spending, the Dodgers seem perfectly willing to keep spending until they find paydirt.
Justin Turner and Chase Utley are second and third in fWAR among Dodgers position players, though they’re going in opposite directions; Turner has gotten hot after a slow start and Utley has had a rough June after playing well in April and May. Both are free agents after the season, so Los Angeles could use Gurriel at third or second in 2017 if one or both of Turner/Utley leaves. For this year, Gurriel could step in at second if Utley’s numbers begin to resemble his subpar 2015 stats, or the Dodgers are one of the few teams that could afford to have Gurriel as a glorified reserve player for the rest of the season.
Since Gurriel’s market has technically just opened up, it’s tough to forecast when exactly he could sign. Some teams could wait until Lourdes Gurriel’s free agency is granted, in order to negotiate with both brothers as a package deal. Others may prefer to explore some less expensive infield upgrades (e.g. Danny Valencia) before making on an eight-figure outlay on a player with no Major League experience. As various second and third basemen either come off the trade board or see their asking prices rise to unreasonable heights, however, Gurriel will become more attractive as a potentially simple way to add infield pop.