For a long time, it seemed like Yuliesky Gurriel was never going to play Major League Baseball. He has had several opportunities to defect from Cuba in his long career, but he – and his younger brother Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. – seemed committed to the country and Serie Nacional the way their father – Lourdes Gurriel – was before them. Apparently, things have changed quite a bit for the whole family.
Earlier this month, Yuliesky and Lourdes Jr. defected from Cuba and have begun seeking contracts with Major League teams, though it is unlikely they sign before the All-Star Break. Granma, Cuba's national newspaper, said the Gurriels had "abandoned" their hotel in "an open attitude of surrender to the merchants of professional baseball for profit," according to USA Today.
The Gurriels are the most famous baseball family in Cuba – like the Griffey's or the Bonds'. Seriously. This is a big deal. Even more mysterious, nobody knows where they are at the moment.
Yuliesky, who will be 32 soon, has been tantalizingly unavailable for years – despite being among the best infielders in the world over the last several seasons. Say what you will about the declining level of competition in Cuba or the the translation of stats from foreign leagues, but Yuliesky is a career .333/.415/.576 hitter in over 5,400 plate appearances in Cuba – and one season in Japan with the Yokohama Bay Stars – with 598 walks and just 426 strikeouts over that span.
He is considered a good defender at third and could also fit at second base. Although he's no longer in his prime, he could still jump right into the majors and become a top ten third baseman. It's really too bad Yuliesky – sometimes, spelled Yulieski – never got to compete at the highest level during his peak. In his age-24 season with Sancti Spiritus hit .399/.472/.721 with 22 homers, 90 runs batted in, 11 steals, and just 23 strikeouts over 381 plate appearances. And he followed that up with a .363/.455/.686 with 30 home runs and 105 batted in over 407 plate appearances the next year. MLB.com reporter Jesse Sanchez compares him to Jeff Kent, but more athletic, adding he is a "clutch gamer."
On the surface, there are not many obvious fits for the elder Gurriel in the majors. FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan did not list Kansas City as a likely destination, citing their "reluctance to spend like big spenders, especially with [Mike] Moustakas in place and [Omar] Infante already getting paid."
Sullivan has a point. If Hector Olivera – who was 30 years old and far less accomplished when he signed – can get $62.5 million from the Dodgers, Gurriel could get even more. So, that alone is enough to pretty much put the dream of Yuliesky in Royal blue back in the REM cellar.
Yuliesky's brother, Lourdes Jr., doesn't turn 23 until October. Sanchez provides his scouting report of the versatile speedster.
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. He's comparable to Buddy Reed from the University of Florida, who is expected to be a top 15 pick in the upcoming MLB Draft.
That sounds pretty good.
Cuban players who are at least 23 years old and have spent at least five seasons playing in the Cuban professional leagues are exempt from international spending restrictions placed on Major League teams. So Lourdes, a six-year veteran of the Cuban professional leagues, is likely to wait until his birthday this fall to expand his market and earn a more lucrative deal.
The Royals went over the international spending limit last year, meaning they are banned from offering any international free agent more than $300,000 beginning on the new international signing period on July 2. However, if Lourdes waits until after his birthday and is not subject to international spending limits, the Royals would have a chance to offer as much as they wanted.
In the "messed up" international market, players are sometimes packaged together to manipulate the international signing rules. In this case, both brothers could sign with the same club in a package deal before Lourdes birthday, where older brother Yuliesky is overpaid to compensate for the deal under the spending restrictions Lourdes would be subject to. FanGraphs' Dave Cameron projects a package deal being somewhere in the range of $100 million, but notes that Lourdes would probably be better off simply waiting until after he turns 23 to sign on his own.
All in all, it seems like the Gurriels are likely beyond the financial reach of the Royals. It could happen. It would be great for the team to sign a Cuban icon like Yuliesky, and Lourdes Jr. is a legitimate prospect on his own. The Royals could sign these two guys and have a better option than Omar Infante. No one would have to file bankruptcy. The team wouldn't need a government bailout. It would be fine. But, they probably won't.
However, there's not much sense in criticizing the team for not taking this risk. They have already spent uncharacteristic amounts of money this winter and committed significantly to what will be a decent-sized payroll for several years. It is hard to believe them when they say they are going to break even, but it's also harder to lean on that old perennial touchstone of free agency fatalism now that they have actually begun operating like a Major League Baseball team.