The Cuban bubble in major league baseball appears, for the most part, to have popped.
I mean two things when I say the bubble has popped: one, the remarkable flow of Cuban defectors with high-level baseball skills over the past several years seems to have slowed to a mere trickle. (At best.) And two, the wave of superstar players that were projected to take over the big leagues simply hasn't materialised. Instead, what we've gotten are some solid players, some inconsistent but useful players, and some pretty high-profile busts.
Yasiel Puig looked like a dominant superstar force to be reckoned with for the Dodgers in 2013, but since then he has seemingly devolved. The remarkable athleticism he showed early on has backed up, and his approach at the plate, which once balanced aggression with just enough selectiveness to force pitchers into a corner, has completely collapsed. Yoenis Cespedes jumped out of the gate fast, then sputtered. Now he's playing extremely well for the Mets, so maybe he's a star after all. Jose Abreu has seen his production fall off a cliff as his power has nearly disappeared. Aroldis Chapman has been the closest thing to a superstar from that group, consistently, but even he's done it as a closer, which is super high-profile, admittedly, but also doesn't bring the kind of value an ace starter does. We'll just leave his off-field behaviour aside, as it doesn't really come in to this discussion much.
There have also been tons of busts. Hector Olivera fleeced the Dodgers out of a bunch of money, and then fleeced the Braves out of a bunch of talent by way of the Dodgers. Erisbel Arruebarruena has been a complete disaster for those same Dodgers, having now been suspended without pay two years in a row. (By the way, when is someone going to look into that situation and see if LA is pulling contract shenanigans because they aren't getting any return on their investment?) Alex Guerrero hasn't been anything close to the hitter he was expected to be. (Maybe it's just the Dodgers.)
There are other players who could still go either way, as well. Yoan Moncada, the third base sensation who defected just a couple years ago, is among the best prospects in baseball right now in Boston's system. (I really wish the Cardinals had gone over the top to get him.) Our own Aledmys Diaz falls into this category, as well; he came up and hit like a house on fire, then slumped badly as the league figured out not to ever, ever, ever throw him a fastball on the inner half, and now appears to be trying to make the adjustment to a less aggressive -- and notably less pull-happy -- approach. His defense has been wildly inconsistent, and I still think he fits better at second base, where his throwing issues would be somewhat mitigated, than at short. But what kind of player Diaz ends up, and what kind of value he brings, is still an open question. Personally, I'm optimistic; but then, I would be, considering how badly I want to proven right in my faith about Diaz this past offseason. So it could be strictly self-serving.
And as for the flow of talent, it's mostly dried up. The high-profile players have almost all come over already, and what's left appears to be much more of the potential role-player variety than potential stars. There are younger players, still, but those in-their-prime star talents are not on the way any longer.
There is, however, one specific exception.
Yulieski Gourriel was recently cleared as a free agent, able to sign with any team in baseball. There are rumours flying around the game that he's going to sign with the Yankees, because the Yankees have a ton of money and have shown some proclivity for signing Cuban free agents in the past. (Though I'm drawing a blank on any since Jose Contreras, honestly.) Also, Gourriel has reportedly spoken to Chapman about the Yankees, and has shown interest in them in the past. (Which, you know, they are the most famous baseball brand in the world still, and have more money than pretty much everyone else, so why wouldn't he be interested?) He's been attached to the Dodgers, because the Dodgers just sign all the Cubans. The Mets have been floated as a possible destination, as well, because David Wright's future is severely in doubt at this point. A few other clubs have been named as potential suitors, but we really don't have a whole lot to go on at this point. (Here's the Google news search for Gourriel; lots of Mets scuttlebutt at the moment, but a whole bunch of other teams in there too.)
So here's the question: should the Cardinals be interested in Yulieski Gourriel?
Well, first, let's consider who Gourriel is as a player.
Back in February, when news of Gourriel (and his younger brother, Lourdes Gourriel, who represents a separate question of interest as a 22 year old), defecting from Cuba first came up, Craig wrote about the pair of brothers, with an emphasis on how the elder Gourriel might fit on the Cardinals in the near- to medium-term. At the time, though, it was more of a vague notion, a general idea of, hey, this talented Cuban player might be coming on the market, and maybe the Cardinals could be interested if things go a certain way. Now that Gourriel is officially free to sign, and we have seen the 2016 Redbirds for almost three months, we have a better idea where things stand.
So, a brief rundown of Yulieski Gourriel. Point one, Gourriel is a third baseman by trade, for the most part, though there has been some speculation he could play second base as well. For my money, he stays at third; his best defensive asset is a monster throwing arm -- probably a 65 or maybe even 70 grade -- and I feel that would be wasted at second base. Point two, Yulieski Gourriel can really, really hit. Over the past decade, anytime a list of the best players in Cuba has been made, Gourriel has been at or right near the top, and while his plus defense at the hot corner has certainly been part of that, it's the bat that has made him a star. Here's his Baseball-Reference Register page; even in an offensive league, as Series Nacional has been for quite a while, Gourriel has put up some big-time numbers. He has plus power, mostly excellent plate discipline, and an all-fields approach that has made him one of the toughest outs in Cuba for pretty much his whole career.
Point three: Yulieski Gourriel's whole career at this point is fairly substantial. By which I mean, he just recently turned 32 years old. By which I mean, this isn't a player who's going to be a ten-year solution, no matter how good he might end up being. And related, point four: Gourriel hasn't played organised baseball this year, meaning he's going to require at least a month or so of tune-up time in the minor leagues before he's probably even in playing shape. And that month to six weeks is probably the best you can hope for in terms of time frames; it could take him longer to get up to speed.
So what we have here is a potential impact bat, and a very solid defender at a premium position, free to sign with any major league club. We also have a player who is probably only going to be in a position to make the kind of impact his skills could allow for around, say, two years after this one. Maybe not even that long, but looking at his profile, this is a guy who seems to have wholeheartedly embraced the toolbox of the old hitter; that 38:3 BB:K ratio in 2015 speaks to both his simply being too good for the league as a whole, and just plain going full Barry Bonds on Cuba. I'm certainly not saying that translates directly, but a player capable of just never striking out, even over just a couple hundred plate appearances, while also waiting pitchers out at a Carpenterian pace, should be able to produce through patience even as some of the other avenues start to close down.
Even so, the clock is ticking on Gourriel. He will sign at 32, meaning any club looking to bring him in will need to be looking to contend immediately in order to take advantage of his remaining window of productivity. He will also, however, probably require a decent portion of the rest of the season to try and get up to speed, meaning the club signing him probably shouldn't be looking to fill a current hole on the starting roster. (It's why the Mets make somewhat limited sense to me; Gourriel isn't going to step into the David Wright-shaped hole in their infield later this week.) So we want a club looking to contend over the next two years -- and preferably in contention this season, though that's maybe not as huge an issue -- but who doesn't have an immediate need to fill, more of a medium-term hole, or at least an upgrade opportunity.
Which, of course, would seem to describe the Redbirds almost to a T. The Cardinals currently have Jhonny Peralta playing third base, the result of shuffling the infield around to keep both Matt Carpenter and Aledmys Diaz's bats in the lineup, and for now that arrangement seems to be very near the ideal. However, Peralta is only signed for one more season after this one (and that's if the Cardinals don't explore Jhonny's trade market this offseason, which I have no real idea if they will or won't, but the opportunity would seem ripe to me to do so), and as magnificent a hitter and overall player as Matt Carpenter is, he isn't pulling down any gold gloves at the hot corner. Matt Adams has had an up and down season (more up than down, which is good to see), and it's still an open question how much of a solution he really is at first base going forward. Kolten Wong lost his job, went to the minors, and is currently moving between outfield spots carrying his glove in a bindle. He's a better defender at second than he is in the outfield -- I feel very confident of that -- but one has to wonder if he's going to regain his early-2015 form at this point.
There are no third base prospects of note in the upper minors other than Paul DeJong, and while I very much like DeJong, he's also striking out ~30% of the time in Springfield right now; not exactly kicking down the door to the big leagues. In other words, a third baseman for the next two to three years would be pretty much ideal for El Birdos.
The arrangement would probably look something like moving Carpenter to first base full time, moving Matt Adams in the offseason, offering Brandon Moss the qualifying offer, either installing Aledmys Diaz at second base permanently and looking at other options for Kolten Wong -- be they here or in another organisation -- using Jhonny one more year at short while looking for a solution after, or keeping Diaz at short and bringing Kolten back in to the dirt. There are other potential arrangements, of course, given how many options the Cards have and how versatile many of their players seem to be, but the idea would essentially be to install a player like Gourriel at third base as a medium-term solution, put Carp at first as his best defensive home, and figure out the middle infield somehow, with Diaz for now looking like a lock to be among some sort of rotation at the very least.
The question of what it would take to sign Gourriel is interesting, but I don't see any number he could reach that the Cardinals couldn't be in on if they wanted to. This is a team still, even running their highest-ever payroll, well below what would appear to be their actual spending limit, and there's a large amount of money coming off the books in the relatively near future. The bigger concern than the money would seem to be the years; you're hoping to use Gourriel as a third-base solution for about three years, and being forced to sign him for five years to get those three years would not be the most attractive option.
The Cardinals, as currently constructed, are kind of a strange team. It's a club with a large number of more-or-less interchangeable pieces, and an organisation that, for all its contention and talk of continuing, is somewhat in transition. We've already seen the production core of the team morph from the Wainwright/Molina/Holliday block into something slightly different, and that's only going to continue in the coming years. Whether the club as currently put together has the core of talent to make another run at championship contention over the next couple seasons is a tough question to answer, and my personal answer to said question probably changes not only at least once per day, but oftentimes between innings of whatever current exercise in frustration the club is putting me through on a given night.
For a team in flux, but without an immediate, desperate need, taking a chance on a 32 year old Cuban third baseman who's been the best player in his county for much of the past decade would seem to fit the timetable of their contention almost perfectly. So long as he's not a five year (or more), commitment, Gourriel could be both a contributor and a stopgap, while the next great Cardinal team coalesces into something a bit more well-defined.
Then again, it's also not tough to argue Gourriel won't be worth the investment, given his age, the doubts about the current level of competition in Cuba, and the fact the Cardinals do have those other options to try and fill their roster needs in the near term. That money could potentially be allocated toward other things, and avoiding these sorts of potential mistakes has been a big part of the current front office's M.O. (and Mo), over the past several years.
But then, back on the other hand, we've seen the Redbirds try and flex some of their financial muscle the past few years in the international market, only to fall short in most cases. (I'm still a little bitter Jung Ho Kang isn't a Cardinal.) Perhaps this is the kind of opportunity they're looking for, to spend money to fill a need in a way they haven't really been able to recently.
Or maybe not. I really can't get any kind of feel for whether this would be a fit or not. I'd like to think it would be, but I could be completely off-base.
Anyhow, let's watch Gourriel sock some dingers, shall we?
via a series of Japanese characters I cannot read (I can speak a tiny bit of Japanese, but writing and reading it is beyond my abilities):
I will say, the bat is in the zone a very long time. The swing feels long because of the bat wrap, but the hand speed is elite, and the head of the bat stays in the zone a long time. Definitely interesting.