Feature Photo: Yasiel Puig, RF, Dodgers
Cuban players have long been an enigma. Stuck in the middle between global politics and the insatiable hunger for baseball talent, these players would seemingly pop up out of nowhere. They have come in all ages, and come via all routes imaginable. Stories of defection are, in themselves, a fascinating rabbit hole to go down, with three prominent examples being Orlando Hernandez, Yasiel Puig, and Jose Fernandez (click player names for full accounts).
Cuba has been slowly feeding players to the big leagues for decades, however until recently very little has been known about the players until they have showed up on a big league field somewhere. The recent rash of defections and subsequent upper-level production of the most recent Cuban players has caused contract values to skyrocket, subsequently placing an increasing amount of pressure on scouting departments to see these guys play before they show up in the United States. Scouts have to be ready to follow the Cuban travel teams wherever they go, because opportunities to see them play are usually scarce, and you never really know when one of these guys will bolt from Cuba and show up somewhere ready to sign. The impact that players like Puig, Fernandez, and others have had in the big leagues makes it easy to dream on who next talent might be, but MLB success still remains far from a guarantee.
The next player to rock the international free agent market may end up being a 31-year-old talent that has long been on the radar of MLB international scouting departments. There’s been no shortage of mystery and intrigue surrounding Yulieski Gurriel in scouting circles. Bursting onto the scene at the 2006 World Baseball Classic (WBC) as a 22-year-old star for the Cuban national team, Gurriel raised more than a few eyebrows with his MLB-ready tools, leaving front offices to wonder when, or if, he would defect. The son of long time Cuban star Lourdes Gourriel, Yulieski seemed to have too prominent of a family reputation to follow through on defecting. Over the next 10 years, he would be followed closely, and be one of the first names mentioned by scouts when a Cuban travel team would load up for international play.
How good was he? Well, recent looks have been hard to come by, but I was able to see Gurriel in 2014. Here’s my scouting report. We’ll get back to him in a moment.
The Evolution of Scouting and Signing Cuban Players – A Quick Primer
The scouting and signing of Cuban players is a unique backstory, and really helps to set the table for how clubs have arrived at their current strategy regarding these players. There is even further relevance moving into 2016, as U.S./Cuba relations become less constrained.
It really wasn’t until 2006, when the WBC and its qualifying tournaments were created, that foreign countries had any real venue to showcase their country’s baseball prowess.
With a baseball factory like Cuba, it came as no surprise that after the WBC was created, more and more Cuban travel teams were participating in mini-tournaments around the globe. It quickly became apparent that Cuba’s political relationship with Japan presented a wonderful opportunity for the Cuban national team to experience some international exposure.
Following that first WBC in 2006, there was a rash of Cuban defections, including Alexi Ramirez (to the White Sox for $4.75 million), Jose Fernandez (selected with the14th overall pick by Marlins; $2 million bonus), Dayan Viciedo (White Sox; four years, $10 million) and Jose Iglesias (Red Sox; four years, $8.25 million). Often these players would bolt while their national teams were playing overseas, and it got to the point where Cuba’s coaches were rumored to be keeping players’ passports while the team was traveling.
After the 2009 WBC, the flow of players increased even further; now New York Yankee, Aroldis Chapman, apparently defected by just leaving his Rotterdam hotel room in July of 2009 with an eye on taking advantage of his immense value in the big leagues. He signed with the Reds shortly thereafter. Unlike some other tales of defection, though, Chapman offered a rather simple story of the process: “It was pretty straightforward,” he recalled. “I just walked out of the hotel, got in the car, and left,” he told an Associated Press reporter at the time.
Adeiny Hechavarria (Marlins) joined Chapman in 2009, and following along in 2010-12 were Yoenis Cespedes (to the A’s for four years, $36 million), Roenis Elias (Mariners; $350,000 signing bonus), Leonys Martin (Rangers; five years, $15.5 million), Jorge Soler (Cubs; nine years, $30 million), and Yasiel Puig (Dodgers; seven years, $42 million). Henry Urrutia (Orioles) and Aldemys Diaz (Cardinals) also fell into this category, though with lower-level deals (Urrutia’s deal here; Diaz’s here).
The freight train continued into 2013; Jose Abreu (White Sox; seven years, $68 million), Erisbel Arruebarrena (Dodgers; five years, $25 million), Rusney Castillo (Red Sox; seven years $72.5 million), Yoan Moncada (Red Sox; $31.5 million bonus) Hector Olivera (Dodgers; six years, $62.5 million) and Yasmany Tomas (Diamondbacks; six years, $68.5 million) to just name a few.
From an industry standpoint, Puig’s rise, in particular, seemed to be the spark that lit the fire of scouting departments to find the next Cuban stud. Once Puig broke into the big leagues, it seemed like no one would ever get him out; his laser shots and rocket arm from right field displayed a level of noise matched only by his flamboyant personality. And it led to a kind of ‘can’t miss’ attitude for clubs surrounding any Cuban free agent. It was like teams just looked at the numbers of Puig, Abreu, Cespedes and Chapman, and jumped to the conclusion that the next guy would be the same, or better; and with that attitude came a prolific spike in risk tolerance for these huge contracts.
Outside of Cuba, Asia was probably the most likely place to find Cuban players during this stretch, and I often had a front-row seat to view them before they were signed. I was high on Castillo based on my Cuban national team looks, but was surprised at how big of a commitment he received from the red Sox; I had similar feelings about Olivera’s deal with L.A., especially with his injury concerns at the time. Arruebarrena’s money from the Dodgers was a valuation that blew my mind for what I had seen to be a very much ‘glove first’ type of player.
Assessing the Value of Yulieski Gurriel – My Views of the Player
Having said all that, Yulieski Gurriel is arguably the most attractive major league-ready Cuban at the moment. While not everyone agrees on the type of player he will be, most in the industry think that his bat should play quite well at the big league level. In my personal looks on Gurriel over the years, his performance has fluctuated greatly. In the 2009 WBC, he was arguably the team’s best player, hitting .333/.333/.625 with 2 homers, 5 runs and 6 RBIs in a solid six game stretch; showing well above-average bat speed, solid-average power and a plus arm in the infield.
Going into the ’09 WBC, scouts brought with them a wide variety of opinions on Gurriel. While most agreed on his premium bat, most also seemed to think that he tended to show up when he felt like it, and that he had a reputation for a sullen attitude. One upper-level scout at the WBC, whom had seem him play far more than I had, told me that he was a great teammate when he was going good and a cancerous presence when he wasn’t.
My next look at Gurriel was in Fukuoka and Sapporo, where in 2012 there was friendly tournament between Samurai Japan and the Cuban National Team that both teams used as preparation for the upcoming 2013 WBC. Gurriel showed up again. The bat speed was again there, and he showed power to the middle of the field. He looked a step or so slower on defense, but that was not a huge surprise since the last time I’d seen him was three years prior. It was also here that another upper-level scout raved about Gurriel, confidently comparing him to Adrian Beltre. That next March, however, the Cuban National Team struggled hard, and right in the middle of it was Gurriel. He gave away at bats, swinging early and often, and uncharacteristically expanding the zone. He struggled defensively at third in the preliminary rounds in Taiwan, often getting caught flat-footed causing his hands to stiffen up. Things did not improve for him in the next round when the games moved to the mostly turf infields of Japan. He occasionally would show flashes of the greatness most scouts were waiting for, but ultimately, he left me with a feeling that perhaps his window had closed with regard to his overall potential in the big leagues.
The last really good look any scout got of Gurriel was in 2014 with the Yokohama DeNA Baystars of the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB). In 2013, INDER (a sort of Sports Ministry in Cuba) negotiated agreements with several NPB clubs that would allow Cuban players to play in the NPB, provided that those players were always allowed to put the needs of the Cuban national team first. Gurriel was one of the more prominent Cuban players to take advantage of this opportunity. He proceeded to hit .305 with an OPS of .894, including 11 HRs and 22 doubles in 239 ABs with Yokohama. This was the player scouts were expecting to see the year before. He showed good actions, above-average bat speed, and continued showing power to the middle of the field. He still showed off a solid above-average arm and what should translate to a solid-average defense at third base in the big leagues. Click here for a highlight reel of his 2013 season.
The Baystars expected his return in 2015, but when he did not show up for spring camp, rumors flew about him jumping ship for an MLB contract. Later, it was leaked that he was nursing a hamstring injury, and preferred to rehab at home in Cuba, something his NPB club was none too pleased about, but something that they had no choice but to accept. When nothing changed over the next few weeks, the Baystars canceled his contract, and Gurriel played 2015 in Cuba.
In February of this year, it was reported that he and his brother left their hotel in the Dominican Republic with the intention of signing with an MLB club. While it had seemed that Gurriel had every intention of departing Cuba with the nation’s blessing, such permission has been slow to develop. He is now 31 (that’s getting old in baseball years) and shelf life is a very real concern. Perhaps he just ran out of time.
For now, his future in the big leagues remains an open question, but we may have some answers very soon. Consider that on March 22nd, an MLB team will be setting foot onto Cuban soil for the first time since 1999, when the Tampa Bay Rays will play the Gurriel-less Cuban national team. With recent changes in U.S. sanctions in Cuba that came into effect on March 15th, perhaps the path is now finally clearing for Gurriel, and other Cuban players, to come play in the States. Put 16-year-old stud Lazaro Armenteros, already a target of MLB clubs, on your watch list as the next high-profile example coming down the pike.
So how would I go about placing a value on Guriell in today’s market? Considering he’ll bring his run-producing bat and average defense at third base immediately to a big league roster, I’d say the four-year $52 million contract Chase Headley got from the Yankees prior to the 2015 season is a likely starting point.
It has to be an emotional time for a great many Cuban people as they reflect on the trials they faced in their journeys to the US. There is still a ways to go, but it is appears that those trials will be a thing of the past, and in the very near future Major League Baseball will experience the full force of the Cuban influence.