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The Preemptive Lourdes Gurriel Column

There is a Cuban baseball star celebrating his birthday today. And you, dear reader, should definitely care.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros
Yes, that’s the elder Gurriel brother. Best I can do with our image resources.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

RB Note: I am scheduling this post to be published much earlier than usual; this is just in case news breaks early in the day about the subject of the post. Most likely, it will be some time before negotiations actually come to a head with any single club, I would think, but there is always the chance some team and the player have had all their discussions ahead of time, and there is already a contract in place to be finalised once the signing bonus rules alluded to below are officially no longer relevant. — Aaron

Today is the 19th of October, 2016. Weather Underground tells me that in my neck of the woods here today we’re supposed to have a thunderstorm at some point, which will hopefully bring at least a temporary reprieve from the abominable heat this St. Louis October has largely featured. Hot, dry Octobers are perhaps my new least favourite thing in the world, and I say new only because I don’t honestly recall an October quite like this one, weather-wise. The sooner we can get to rain and chill the happier I shall be.

The 19th of October is also the date on which, in 1812, Napoleon’s Le Grande Armee began its long, slow retreat from Moscow. Spoiler alert: it didn’t go well. Perhaps more importantly to most people reading this, October 19th is the day typically hailed as the official end of the Revolutionary War, seeing General Cornwallis surrender at Yorktown, presenting another huge landmark on the road to the establishment of our country. So suck it, limeys. (Sorry, Aranthor and FamousMortimer and Felonius Monk and I’m sure a few others; you’re all one of the good ones, he said while motioning with his hands for the rest of the blog to advance upon the enemy.)

Hannibal Barca lost to Scipio Africanus on the 19th of October, ending the Second Punic War. Spoiler alert: it didn’t go well for Carthage, because Romans are mostly dicks. (Sorry, any readers from Rome or of Italian descent, he said while motioning with his hands to — well, you get the picture.)

Martin Luther became a doctor of theology on this date in 1512, though I’ve heard rumours it was from one of those medieval German diploma mills. Still, he did kick off the Reformation, which I gathered was a big deal on the two occasions in my life I was forced to attend Sunday School. (Weird story, but it ended with me cursing in front of a teacher and my grandma threatening to drag said teacher outside and “stomp a mudhole” in her moments before my father was confirmed into the Lutheran faith. Spoiler alert: it also did not go well.)

The point is, lots of things have happened on the 19th of October throughout recorded history. That’s the case with pretty much any date on the calendar one would like to check, though; with hundreds of thousands of what could be considered ‘historical events’ occurring throughout human history, and just 365 days upon which said events can occur, you’re bound to have some overlap.

However, there is one more unique thing about the 19th of October that sets it apart from all those other days: this particular 19th of October, 2016, will go down as an historically important date, at least the equal of a major religion being founded or a future superpower gaining her independence from her colonial masters. Today is the day that baseball, perhaps the greatest creation of mankind (at least top three, along with the wheel and soft pretzels, not necessarily in that order), changes forever.

Today, the 19th of October 2016, is the day Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. turns 23 years old.

So take that, Martin Luther and your doctorate from the Universitat zu Phoenicia! (That’s another smart joke, folks.)

Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating a tiny bit; Lourdes Gurriel, the younger brother of Yulieski Gurriel and a recent Cuban defector himself, turning 23 is probably not an historical event people 2500 years from now will need to know. In fact, Lourdes Gurriel turning 23 might not even be a huge date in the history of the game of baseball two decades from now.

It is, however, a very important date as of right now, in the context of the 2016 baseball offseason. Hot Stove season has not yet officially arrived, as the playoffs are still going on, but the first salvo of the offseason moves is likely to be Gurriel deciding his future club in the very near future.

A bit of context may be needed for some who don’t follow the international market, in terms of why Gurriel turning 23 is important. Under the current rules of baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (which, by the way, is up after this season and currently being renegotiated), teams have a set bonus pool they are allowed to spend during the July 2 signing period every year (July 2 being the moniker for the international amateur market, because of the date on which each period begins), and there are penalties for exceeding that pool. The most important penalty is losing the ability to sign high bonus players at all for a period following a big overage of spending, but there’s also the matter of a 100% tax on money spent above and beyond a team’s pool.

Now, the 100% tax is not a huge matter in many cases. Baseball teams have revenue streams of the sort that see paying $2 million for a $1 million bonus player as essentially nothing more than the cost of doing business. A team in the penalty phase who believes they have a player who could be great agreed to a half million bonus will not balk whatsoever that they’ll actually be spending a million. After all that’s something like one-fifth of a Wiggington, and that’s not really much in the economy of the game.

However, there are cases where the signing bonus tax is a big deal. For instance, when the Boston Red Sox signed Yoan Moncada (now the more or less consensus top overall prospect in baseball), last February, they handed the then-nineteen year old a $31.5 million signing bonus. Because of the overage tax, the Red Sox actually spent $63 million, though.

Even for a baseball team, thirty million dollars is not pocket change.

Here’s the thing about the signing bonus guidelines, though: the July 2 amateur bonus pool only applies to players under 23 years old. Ergo, despite defecting at the same time as his brother Yulieski earlier this year, Lourdes has waited until his 23rd birthday to sign, making him exempt from the July 2 rules. That’s important, because absent the 100% tax on signing him, clubs will be more likely to give him a bigger bonus, since they won’t be taxed double on top of the amount. So Gurriel waited for a couple months to sign, and should see a multi-million dollar jump in the size of his bonus. Not bad work if you can get it, right?

So what all of that means, essentially, is that today is the day the bidding on Lourdes Gurriel Jr, perhaps the next Cuban star, really begins. Personally, I’m hoping the Cardinals are aggressive in going out and getting a deal with the young Gurriel done. And no, I don’t mean aggressive as in, “bidding went beyond where we were comfortable,” or, “we made an offer we believed was competitive with the market, but the player chose to go in a different direction.” I mean aggressive as in just fucking sign the guy for once.

Gurriel has played multiple positions in his Cuban career, including second base, shortstop, left field, center, and third base. That last one is probably the one sending up sparks in everybody’s brains right now, because the Cardinals don’t really have a starting third baseman in 2017, unless they recant what appears to be a pretty solid plan to shift Matt Carpenter to first base and seek a defensive upgrade. If the Galveston Grinder does indeed move to first, with Matt Adams either shifted to the bench or moved in a trade, the plan going entirely internally is basically Jedd Gyorko, starting third baseman.

Which isn’t to say Jedd Gyorko, starting third baseman, is an absolutely appalling prospect. After all, Gyorko is coming off a 111 wRC+ season which, by offensive value, was remarkably similar to his 2013 rookie campaign in San Diego. There are arguments to be made he could regress slightly, but also arguments that he made real changes to his approach this season, most notably in deliberately trying to pull the ball, in the air, for power. He also, for whatever it’s worth, looked fairly solid at third base defensively. Certainly better than Jhonny Peralta, who looks to have aged very rapidly, and better than Matt Carpenter himself, who does most things asked of a third baseman quite well, but just doesn’t have the arm for the position.

However, Jedd Gyorko starting at third base every day is not my ideal situation. To me, Gyorko’s best fit for the Cardinals of 2017 is to take right-handed at-bats from Carpenter at first base, right-handed at-bats at second from Kolten Wong, and fill in at third whenever necessary. I don’t particularly want to see him at shortstop, but it’s also not the end of the world if he sees five to ten games there during the season. In other words, Jedd Gyorko possesses actual, real no-foolin’ versatility, as well as the power to make an impact in whatever role he’s cast, and I would prefer to see him taking the short end of platoon time from a couple players than tied down to one position.

Which, of course, is where Gurriel comes in. At 6’2” and something like 185-190 pounds, Gurriel is big for a middle infielder, but made his frame work for him very well in Serie Nacional. As a third baseman, though, he has a nearly ideal frame, and athleticism and actions to match. A plus arm, a quick first step, and good hands are the most important traits for the hot corner, and Lourdes appears to have all in spades. He also began to show significant offensive upside his last two seasons in Cuba — which happened to be his age 20 and 21 seasons — hinting there could be a dynamic overall player in the making.

There are a couple of concerns to be voiced about Gurriel, clearly. One is the fact he’s not likely to be ready to go immediately at the start of the 2017 season. Much like Aledmys Diaz, Gurriel has now had a fairly significant layoff from playing, and by the time spring training of 2017 rolls around, it will have been nearly two years since he was playing every day in Cuba. Obviously, he will have done plenty to try and stay in playing shape, but we know there’s a certain amount of rust to be expected. Most likely, if signed, the Cardinals would start Gurriel in the minors, probably Double A, at the beginning of the 2017 season, and let him play his way to the big leagues.

Second, Lourdes, despite looking very good defensively nearly everywhere he has played, has never been a one-position player, meaning it’s a little harder to scout him as strictly a third baseman. His time in the minors would probably be not only to play his way into major league shape, but also to focus in on a single position, something he’s never really done before.

And third, there’s the question of the cost. Gurriel’s very smart move in waiting until his 23rd birthday will almost certainly work out extremely well for him, in that he can now get paid without the signing team being taxed 100% on top of the bonus. The other benefit to Gurriel, though, is that by waiting until the July 2 rules no longer apply to him is the fact that all of the teams who blew themselves out of the bidding this year by going way over in past years can now sign him as well. When he was 22, the teams prohibited from signing players for more than $300,000 bonuses in the amateur international market couldn’t really get into the bidding. Now, clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox and Dodgers can. Whether the Cardinals will be willing to pony up to beat out offers from the real high rollers of the league is an open question. (He said, then coughed in a way that sounded suspiciously like ‘davidprice’.)

Of the options for third base in 2017 and beyond, Gurriel is easily my favourite move. (Actually, second favourite, behind hypnotising Jerry Dipoto to trade Kyle Seager to the Cards in exchange for Eric Ludwick.) There has been quite a bit of discussion regarding potentially looking at Justin Turner of the Dodgers, and while I think Turner could be a very good pickup for the Cards in the near term, he’s also coming off what look to be a huge outlier of a season defensively, will be 32 next year (an age when defense will often decline pretty rapidly), will probably require a five-year commitment, will come with a qualifying offer that will cost the Redbirds a first round pick (something they have been loathe to give up in the past, and probably rightly so), and is also a free agent of the Dodgers, who have very little reason to simply let a potentially excellent third baseman walk away, and could sign him for 5/$80 million and sit him on the bench if they really wanted to.

Personally, as much as I like the idea of Turner (and I do), there is significant downside there. I also would prefer to see the Cardinals get younger, rather than older, as they continue to try and build their next group of core players. I think Lourdes Gurriel, while certainly not a guaranteed success, could be a part of that long term core. Justin Turner at 32 could be good, but I question for how long. That’s not a core player.

Finally, the best argument in favour of Gurriel is that he would really only require money to sign, albeit a really big cartoon sack of it, probably the kind that has three dollar signs on the side instead of just one. As it stands now, the Cardinals have cut something like $25 million off their payroll from the 2016 season to next year (yes, that’s before arbitration increases and the like, admittedly), in the form of Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss both being off the books. (For now.) They could cut Jaime Garcia loose, save $11.5 million, and probably not miss him all that much. Better yet, they could pick up the option, trade him, and save $12.5 million, get a lottery ticket back, and still not miss him all that much. They could trade Jhonny Peralta’s one year of contract remaining at $10 million, save that money, and again, not really miss the production.

What I’m saying is that the Cardinals are swimming in money (especially potential money), big Scrooge McDuck piles of it, and trading money for talent is probably the least painful way of acquiring said talent right now. A trade will require sending talent out the door, and while I certainly think the Redbirds should do some of that as well, most likely to try and upgrade center field, I doubt they have the resources to make two big trades. Or, at the very least, would be unwilling to give up enough talent to make two big trades. Gurriel would not cost a first round pick, would not cost prospects going the other direction, and would offer a potential star player at 23 who could be a part of the club for the next decade, if things go well.

Admittedly, dropping $50 million on a player who has never taken a major league at-bat would be both risky and out of character for the Cardinals. However, signing Gurriel would, I would argue, actually be more similar to them signing Peralta to a rare front-loaded deal, taking advantage of the financial muscle they possessed at that time, than you might think at first glance.

The Cardinals are in a position where they have immense financial flexibility, potentially just completely ridiculous financial flexibility, are in a transitional phase from the aging core Jason Heyward cited as a reason for leaving town, and really need a couple more foundational players to build on. Lourdes Gurriel is not a guarantee, by any means. But he’s almost a perfect fit for what the Redbirds need, so long as they’re willing to take a bit of a risk in placing a much bigger bet than their last Cuban expedition required.

That expedition seems to have worked out pretty well so far, in the person of an offensive-minded shortstop signed for relative peanuts for the near future. This expedition, in spite of the bigger stakes, has the potential to work out just as well, if not better.