Finally, Yulieski Gourriel is coming to Major League Baseball. Long considered the top player in Cuba, the 32-year-old infielder, who defected back in February, was officially declared a free agent on Monday. For the team that signs him, he could be a high-impact acquisition for the stretch run, though his age and the recent stateside history of Cuban players could limit his market.
Gourriel and his 22-year-old brother, Lourdes Jr. (who reportedly changed the spelling of their last name from "Gourriel" to "Gurriel" roughly two years ago, according to MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez), left the Cuban national team hotel in Santo Domingo in February after playing in the Caribbean Series. The brothers hail from "the first family" of Cuban baseball: Their father, Lourdes Gourriel Sr., starred in Cuba's Serie Nacional from 1976 to '95, winning a Rookie of the Year award, two batting titles and numerous gold medals in international play, including an Olympic gold medal at Barcelona in 1992; he has since gone on to manage in Cuba. Older brother Yunieski Gourriel, meanwhile, was a star centerfielder, and an uncle, a cousin and a nephew have also played there.
Yulieski debuted in Serie Nacional during the 2001–02 season, when he was just 17 years old, and spent the first 12 seasons of his career starring for Gallos de Sancti Spiritus before moving on to Industriales de La Habana for the '13–14 season. In his 15 Serie Nacional seasons, he's hit a combined .337/.421/.582 with 239 homers and 118 stolen bases in 5,233 plate appearances, playing primarily at third base but also second and even centerfield. The Cuban government allowed him to play in Japan in 2014, after the conclusion of Industriales' season; in 62 games with the Yokohama Bay Stars of the Japanese Central League, he hit .305/.349/.536 with 11 homers. While free to return for 2015, he did not, due to a right hamstring injury. He put up video game-level numbers in the most recent Serie Nacional season, batting .500/.589/.874 with 15 homers in 224 PA.
Thanks to their chances to watch him in international play, stateside talent hounds have long coveted Gourriel, viewing him as the equivalent of a first-round pick back in his younger days. He was part of Cuba's 2004 Olympic gold medal team in Athens and the '08 silver medal team in Beijing, as well as the '06, '09 and '13 World Baseball Classic teams, the first of which was runner-up to Japan. Last April, Baseball America's Ben Badler ranked Gourriel the island's top player, writing of his offensive profile:
Gourriel has all the attributes to be an above-average offensive player. He has plus bat speed and squares up all types of pitches with good hand-eye coordination and barrel control. He wraps his barrel behind his head, angling the bat toward the pitcher, but he gets the barrel into the hitting zone quickly and has good plate coverage. He stays within the strike zone and uses the whole field, and with plus raw power on the 20-80 scale, he offers a balance of being able to hit for average, get on base and hit for power.
Badler added that Gourriel is an above-average defender at third base, with "athletic, agile and has quick reactions off the bat," good hands, range and a 70-grade (plus-plus) arm, not to mention a high baseball IQ. That certainly sounds like the profile of a player who can help teams.
According to Sanchez, Gourriel will begin private workouts for teams in the near future and is hoping to make his major league debut by Aug. 1. Unlike most Cuban defectors, he didn't have to sit out a full season before coming stateside, which means that he's probably in better shape and has less rust to shake off than most of his predecessors.
Thanks in part to that rust, the track record of recent Cuban defector position players in the majors is a spotty one. Yoenis Cespedes has emerged as a superstar: He's hit .272/.322/.494 in five seasons, including .282/.349/.578 with the Mets this year. The play of Yasiel Puig, however, has declined in each season since he took the majors by storm in 2013. Jose Abreu—who signed a six-year, $68 million deal with the White Sox in October 2013—bashed 36 homers, led the league in slugging percentage and OPS+ (.581 and 173, respectively) and won AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2014, but he slipped a bit last season and has been mired in a slump this year, batting .260/.315/.415 thus far.
Those three players at least have some major league success to point to. That's been less the case for players such as Jorge Soler, Alex Guerrero, Rusney Castillo, Yasmany Tomas and Hector Olivera. Soler, whom the Cubs signed to a nine-year, $30 million deal in 2012, has hit a combined .258/.325/.421 with 20 homers in 653 plate appearances over parts of three seasons but has increasingly battled injuries. Guerrero, who signed a four-year, $28 million deal with the Dodgers in October 2013, was recently released after hitting .224/.251/.434 with 11 homers in 243 plate appearances. The Dodgers concluded that he was unable to handle either second or third base adequately, and with a glut of outfielders, they had no room for one who couldn't handle the strike zone either. Castillo, who signed a seven-year, $72.5 million deal with the Red Sox in late 2014, has hit just .265/.304/.383 in 333 PA, including just four this year; he hit .245/.304/.320 for Triple A Pawtucket before being recalled on June 1 but has been confined to pinch-runner and defensive replacement duty since then. Olivera, whom the Dodgers signed to a six-year, $62 million deal last year and then traded to the Braves on July 31, is currently serving an 82-game suspension for violating MLB's domestic violence policy; in 108 PA prior to that, he hit .245/.296/.378. Tomas, whom the Diamondbacks signed to a six-year, $68.5 million deal in December 2014, has hit .270/.309/.411 with 16 homers in 640 PA, not to mention defense at third base and the outfield corners that has pushed his total stateside WAR down to -1.5.
For at least the past decade, Gourriel has been more highly rated than any of those players, and he figures to sign a deal with dollars in the range of Olivera, Abreu and Tomas, perhaps for fewer years given his age. The chances of him getting such money are increased by the fact that the Dodgers have reportedly expressed interest despite their shaky track record with Cuban players—one that also includes multiple disciplinary suspensions for shortstop Erisbel Arruebarrena, who played 22 games for them in 2014 and was outrighted off the 40-man roster last year. Los Angeles does have a need at third base, however, with starter Justin Turner hitting just .221/.312/.348 after undergoing off-season microfracture surgery on his left knee.
Gourriel has previously been reported to be particularly interested in the Yankees due to the presence of former teammate Aroldis Chapman, but the fireballing closer will reach free agency this winter and is already drawing heavy trade interest as New York has slipped back below .500. Further complicating matters is the presence of 32-year-old Chase Headley at third base. The veteran is hitting just .240/.316/.333 in the second season of a four-year, $52 million deal, some portion of which would have to be absorbed to deal him elsewhere, though the Yankees could open a spot for Gourriel by moving Headley to first base if Mark Teixeira, who’s on the disabled list due to torn cartilage in his knee, needs surgery. Already too reliant on older players, the Yankees steered clear of the free-agent market this past winter in order to aid their future roster flexibility, so they may be wary of Gourriel unless he comes at a discount.
As far as other teams go, the Mets clearly have a need at the hot corner given that David Wright was recently sidelined for two months due to a herniated disc in his neck (on top of the spinal stenosis with which he was diagnosed last year). Wright is signed through 2020, and there's no guarantee he'll ever be anything close to the player who made seven All-Star teams from 2005 to '13 before falling off due to a variety of injuries. But even with an insurance policy that pays 75% of his salary for every day he misses after the first 60—a provision that helped the team acquire Cespedes last summer—New York doesn't yet appear ready to turn the page on the popular team captain.
Among other contending teams, the Indians—for whom Juan Uribe is hitting just .217/.276/.29 with -0.3 WAR and now a testicular contusion (ouch!)—could use the help, as could the Royals, who have lost Mike Moustakas for the year due to a torn ACL. Neither team seems likely to break out their checkbooks to outbid the financial heavyweights, however, particularly with the latter expecting Moustakas back next season. The Giants are getting strong enough defense (+9 Defensive Runs Saved) out of Matt Duffy to offset his .238/.304/.336 line, which has been trending slightly upward in recent weeks. It's not out the question that a non-contender could sign Gourriel, but with so many focused on rebuilding through younger players, the addition of an expensive 32-year-old would appear out of character. It’s also not out of the question that Gurriel would be willing to play a corner outfield position, which could increase the number of suitors.
As for younger brother Lourdes, primarily an outfielder: He has yet to be cleared to sign, which could wind up working in his favor. His current age makes him subject to international bonus pool spending rules, ruling out teams such as the Cubs, Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers, whose previous surpassing of their spending limits prevents them from offering bonuses above $300,000. Those rules won't apply to Gourriel after he turns 23 on Oct. 19, however, and so he may be better served by waiting.
All of which means that big brother Yulieski has the spotlight to himself for the moment. Even with the risk he carries, the buildup over the past decade means that it will be exciting to see how he measures up to major league competition, no matter where he signs.