Two years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals dipped their toes in a market they had previously avoided and signed Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz to a four-year, eight-million dollar contract. The investment in Diaz is a relatively small sum and after some growing pains in his first year, it is still possible for the contract to pay dividends as Diaz came on strong at the end of last season. Two brothers, Yulieski Gurriel, 31, and Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., 22 (Gourriel spelling has also been used), have reportedly defected from Cuba and represent two of the most talented international players available at an age to contribute much sooner than most international signings.
While the Aledmys Diaz deal did not represent an onslaught of Cuban free agents heading to St. Louis, it did represent a willingness to explore markets they had less confidence in the outcomes. The signing of Seung Hwan Oh sent similar signals, albeit in Asia. After striking out in free agency when it comes to hitters, the Cardinals also have a hole in the upper minors when it comes to talented position-player prospects. With two of the best international free agents available potentially coming to the states, the Cardinals will be presented with an opportunity to infuse some talented hitting into the franchise and fill any potential holes currently in the organization.
Yulieski Gurriel is the older of the two at 31 years old and is the best player in Cuba, according to Baseball America. According to his scouting report, he is an above-average major league hitter.
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.
As far as fielding goes, he is a third baseman.
His best fit is at third base, where he is an above-average defender. He's athletic, agile and has quick reactions off the bat. He draws some criticism from scouts for mental lapses, but he has good hands and range for the position, along with a 70 arm. A fringe-average runner, Gourriel's range is better suited for third base than second, though his instincts, high baseball IQ and body control help and would make him playable there if a major league team wanted to use him at second.
The elder Gurriel played in Japan last season, but returned to Cuba this year due to a falling out and dispute with his team over communication regarding an injury (insert jokes about him being the perfect Cardinal). At 31, any team signing him is paying him for his down years, but given the relative cost on the free agent and the high floor given his tools and performance over the years, it could make a deal worth pursuing, especially if the team grows increasingly dissatisfied with the internal options at first base and moved Matt Carpenter across the diamond.
Yulieski Gurriel, once he gets approved to sign, which could take several months, will be free to sign with any team without regard for spending limits as he has played more than five years professionally and is over 23 years of age. The same is not true for Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., who does have the requisite five years of professional play, but does not turn 23 years old until October.
Until October, Gurriel, Jr. will come attached to the international bonus pool rules, which I have recommended the Cardinals exceed beginning in July, potentially close to the time Gurriel, Jr. could be approved to sign. Gurriel, Jr. given his youth and bright future, could choose to wait until October when all teams could sign him and they would be free from paying a 100% penalty on his signing bonus, none of which goes to the player.
A position for Gurriel, Jr. has not yet been determined as he could play infield or outfield, per Jesse Sanchez at MLB.com.
Gurriel Jr., who plays shortstop and outfield, was hitting .321 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs and a .924 OPS in 43 games for the Havana Industriales this season. A good runner with a good glove, he could project as a center fielder and can also play shortstop.
In the goodwill tour of Cuba earlier this winter by current major leaguers, Gurriel professed to being a shortstop, in an excellent piece by Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch. Among the major leaguers on that trip were former Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay and current Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena, who remarked on how much Gurriel, Jr. had grown since Pena left the island more than a decade ago. In Goold's most recent report on the Gurriel defections, Gurriel, Jr. discussed his desire to play in the majors.
"A lot of things have to happen, but I hope to someday be a part of something like this - coming back to Cuba," Gourriel told a few reporters at the ballpark that day, including MLB.com's Sanchez and myself. "It's one of my dreams. ... I've always had that dream since I was a little kid. To get this close and to possibly live this dream is really emotional."
Yulieski Gurriel could fill an immediate need for the Cardinals if Brandon Moss and Matt Adams fail to deliver this season as well as providing a little more security over the next few years to provide an influx of talent. Gurriel, Jr. might not be able to impact the Cardinals in 2016, but with Jhonny Peralta getting older and no guarantee of a near-term shortstop in the Cardinals' system, Gurriel, Jr. could fill that gap.
As far as price goes, much of it now would be speculation. Hector Olivera, 30, Jose Abreu, 27, and Yasmany Tomas, 24, got over $60 million each, and despite his age, it is difficult to see Yulieski Gurriel taking less than that. As for Gurriel, Jr., he might stand to get less, perhaps half as much as his older brother, based on overall track record. His youth could make his contract closer to his brother's than we might initially expect. A lot has to happen before the Cardinals get involved, but the Gurriel's present the Cardinals with a unique opportunity to bring major-league ready talent to the organization without paying typical free agent prices.