Reports out of the Dominican Republic say Cuban star Yulieski Gourriel and his younger brother Lourdes slipped out of a team hotel in an apparent attempt to jump to the major leagues.
While U.S. and Cuban officials having been working on a legal framework for Cuban players to come to the States, no agreement is yet in place, so the Gourriel brothers will have to first establish residency in the Dominican or another country. "Nobody was expecting this," Cuban baseball historian Ismael Sene told the AP. But maybe they should have.
Back in February of 2014, Yulieski told Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com,
"I've played 12 years in Cuba and now I want to play outside. I want to see what it's like and improve. It's always been my dream to play the best baseball that I can, be that in the major leagues or Japan or wherever. I'd love to play in the United States and when I get permission, I'll play."
Gourriel, once regarded as the best player in Cuba, finally received permission to play in Japan and went there in 2014. In Cuba, he was a power-hitting third baseman who hit as high as .399, drawing more walks than strikeouts. In Japan, he played mostly second base and in 258 plate appearances with Yokohama, he hit .305/.349/.536 with 15 walks and 40 strikeouts.
Sanchez's report back in 2014 said that in 2006 "Gourriel's skills drew comparisons to a young Derek Jeter, but he has lost some support in the scouting community in the years that followed because he can seem uninterested at times. Many believe the Cuban simply gets bored because he experienced so much success at a young age."
Gourriel ranked ninth in OPS in the Central League in 2014. Former Mariners prospect Wladimir Balentien led the circuit with a .301/.419/.587 mark while Matt Murton, who played briefly in the majors, won the batting title with a .334 mark. Gourriel didn't return to Japan in 2015, as he returned to Cuba while injured and Yokohoma cancelled his contract.
We can compare his Cuban numbers to some of the recent stars to come over in their final years in Cuba:
Yulieski Gourriel (2013): .313/.425/.566, 54 BB, 31 SO
In partial seasons in 2014 and 2015, he hit .343 and then .535 in 23 games in 2015, when he apparently struck out just once in 106 plate appearances.
Jose Abreu (2012): .345/.481/.617, 54 BB, 39 SO
That was actually a down year for Abreu, who hit .453 in 2010.
Yasiel Puig (2010): .330/.430/.581, 49 BB, 39 SO
Puig did that as a 19-year-old.
Yoenis Cespedes (2010): .333/.424/.667, 49 BB, 40 SO
Hector Olivera (2013): .316/.412/.474, 38 BB, 25 SO
Olivera had more power in other seasons, but injured his elbow in 2012.
So Gourriel compares favorably, although at 31 (turning 32 in June), it's likely his best days are behind him. He doesn't appear to have the raw power of Abreu or Cespedes but probably a little more bat control, although it's important to note he didn't walk much during his 62-game stint in Japan.
Lourdes is also a talented player and he's just 22, a second baseman who hit .321/.387/.537 in the Cuban National Series in 2015.
It's important to note that if both gain eligibility to come to the U.S., they will come in under different bidding systems. Yunieski is over the age of 23 with at least five years of experience in Cuba, so he's a free agent, exempt from any restrictions and free to sign with any team.
Lourdes, however, would fall under the international bonus pool rules, so his bonus falls under a team's international allotment and potentially subject to a tax (in Lourdes' case, since he would receive a multi-million dollar bonus, it would be a 100 percent tax on his signing bonus). Also, his situation changes based on the July 2 international signing date. The Angels, Diamondbacks, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees cannot sign any international players for more than $300,000 until July 2. After July 2, that list shifts to the Blue Jays, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Royals (teams that have already exceeded their bonus pool allotment). Lourdes, however, turns 23 on October 19; if he waits until then to sign he can be an unrestricted free agent like his brother. (For more on this, check out Dave Cameron's piece at FanGraphs.)
It would seem sitting out the entire season would be risky for a young player. He'd have to weigh that against a bidding process that would involve all the big spenders.
The elder Gourriel looks like a big-league ready third baseman, although given his age you probably wouldn't want to invest past three seasons. Teams like the Astros, Indians and Braves could be potential fits, maybe the Red Sox if they give up on Pablo Sandoval. These final weeks heading into spring training and before the regular season just got a lot more interesting, that's for certain.