The New York Yankees made the biggest splash of their otherwise subdued offseason when they acquired a Cuban-born player. That'd be flamethrowing closer Aroldis Chapman, whom they netted in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds.
Now, with spring training so close you can smell the sunscreen and fresh-cut grass, the Yanks can grab another game-changing Cuban. And while there's risk and red tape involved, New York should pounce as soon as possible.
Yulieski Gourriel. Learn to spell it, learn to say it, because it's a name you'll be hearing a lot. The 31-year-old Gourriel and his younger brother, Lourdes, recently defected and are seeking big league deals, per Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com.
Because of his age and service time, Sanchez added, the elder Gourriel is exempt from international signing guidelines. In other words, he's a free agent, though there are hurdles and complications, as we'll get to in a moment.
An infielder who's played the bulk of his innings at third base, Gourriel owns a career .333/.415/.576 slash line with 235 home runs in 849 Cuban National Series contests and is "widely regarded as the top player on the island," per Ben Strauss of the New York Times.
Gourriel most recently turned heads at the Caribbean Series in Puerto Rico.
"Some scouts consider him a plus-defender with plus-makeup and instincts," Sanchez wrote in a dispatch from the tournament on Feb. 6, 2015. "He's also surprised a few scouts with his speed on the bases. There's belief that he could hit .300 in the major leagues with 40 doubles tomorrow."
Two days after finishing this year's Caribbean Series, Strauss reported, the Gourriel brothers walked out of their hotel in the Dominican Republic and into the presumably open arms of MLB.
Yulieski represents a tantalizing, instant-impact option for many clubs, but he should particularly excite the Yankees, who could use another bat and are facing uncertainty in the infield.
First baseman Greg Bird is out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Mark Teixeira, bounce-back 2015 campaign aside, turns 36 in April and will likely need reps at designated hitter to stay healthy and productive. The same, and then some, goes for Alex Rodriguez, who is entering his age-41 season.
Chase Headley can handle both corner-infield positions, but he's coming off a dormant season in the Bronx that saw him post a pedestrian .693 OPS and hit just three home runs after the All-Star break.
The point is, there's room for Gourriel. And if he can translate the power and on-base capabilities he flashed in Cuba, he'll take pressure off the Yanks' cast of creaky veterans.
OK, back to those complications that could stall Gourriel's debut in pinstripes or any other uniform. While Yulieski, as mentioned, is free from international signing restrictions, there are still ponderous hoops to jump through, as Baseball America's Ben Badler outlined:
While MLB no longer requires Cuban players to obtain a specific license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), there is still a bottleneck in the time between when players apply for free agency and when the commissioner’s office clears them to sign. ... the lag time can still take months, and with more Cuban players going through that process than ever before, that window might continue to grow.
Badler speculates it could be up to seven months before the elder Gourriel can sign, which would eliminate his chances of contributing this season.
It's possible the process could move more quickly, however. And it's not as if the Yankees' need for a corner-infield thumper will diminish next season, when their veterans will be a year older and the free-agent pool will be much shallower than this winter's.
Speaking of which, whenever he becomes available, Gourriel is guaranteed to draw widespread interest.
Joel Sherman of the New York Post confirmed that "the Yankees' international scouting director, Donny Rowland, has long liked Yulieski."
However, as Sherman added, "he can be bid on without restrictions by all 30 teams, and because he has drawn comps to players such as Adrian Beltre and Bobby Grich, he likely will have many suitors."
Many suitors equals many dollars. Think somewhere in the neighborhood of the six-year, $68 million deal the Chicago White Sox gave Jose Abreu or the seven-year, $72.5 million pact Rusney Castillo inked with the Boston Red Sox. The length could be shorter due to Gourriel's age, but he'll undoubtedly get paid.
There are no guarantees about production. The above comparisons are instructive, in fact. Abreu was an instant star, clubbing at least 30 home runs and compiling at least 100 RBI in each of his first two big league seasons. Castillo, on the other hand, is still looking to break through at age 28.
Gourriel is older and theoretically more polished. The scouts like him and the stats jump off the page. But it's possible he'll fizzle on baseball's biggest stage. That's always a risk with international players, no matter the hype and pedigree.
Once upon a time, the Yankees were the club that stared risk in the face and laughed maniacally. The franchise that handed out cartoonish checks as a hobby.
Those days are temporarily over as New York and general manager Brian Cashman wait out some albatross contracts and rebuild the farm system.
Then again, there's no such thing as a rebuild at 1 E 161st St. The Yankees are always focused on winning, and Gourriel could help them do exactly that in a balanced AL East.
"I've played 12 years in Cuba and now I want to play outside," Gourriel said prior to his defection, per MLB.com's Sanchez. "I want to see what it's like and improve."
Even if all he does is approach his Cuban output, he'll be fine. And he'd look more than fine in the Yankees lineup, quiet offseason be damned.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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