The Astros today announced their signing of 32 year old Cuban star Yulieski Gourriel to a five-year $47.5 million contract. Gourriel is definitely a major league talent, but at age 32, he’s definitely something of a risk for this much money over this many years.
Gourriel comes from a family of Cuban ballplayers who have starred in the Serie Nacional for more than one generation, and for a long time they were loathe to defect to play for the big money in the United States. Yulieski went to Japan’s NPB in 2014, as part of a deal with the Cuban government to limit defections by top stars like him and Alfredo Despaigne, by all0wing them to make some real money playing in the next best and best paid leagues after MLB.
In 62 games and 258 plate appearances for the Yokohama Bay Stars, Gourriel was outstanding, batting .305 with an .884 OPS and playing what was reported to be excellent defense (at least at 2B — the raw numbers suggest his 3B defense was poor in Japan, although his previous Serie Nacional numbers at the hot corner look good). Yulieski was all set to return to Japan in 2015 and bring along his younger brother, an even better MLB prospect due to his age, Lourdes Gourriel, Jr.
However, a dispute arose regarding when the Gourriel brothers would arrive in Japan. They wanted to finish out the 2014-2015 Serie Nacional season, and Yulieski wanted to take some time off after the Cuban season to rest and recuperate from injuries, which would have cost him the first month of the 2015 NPB season. The Bay Stars, who were planning to pay him a reported $3 million, weren’t at all happy about Yulieski’s wishes. As a result, their relationship broke down, and neither brother went to Japan in 2015.
It’s worth noting that Alfredo Despaigne did not play in Cuba last winter, probably because his NPB team, the Chiba Lotte Marines, insisted that he deliver his talents solely to NPB. It is not an extremely difficult choice to make in terms of the finances: Despaigne makes about $2 million a year playing in Japan this year, as compared to probably something less than one or two hundred dollars a month playing in Cuba.
The half-season spent in Japan seems to have dramatically improved Gourriel’s Serie Nacional performance. Although injuries and his later defection limited him to only 49 games played in the 2015-2016 season, he hit an even .500 with a 1.463 OPS.
Both Yulieski and Lourdes defected from Cuba this past February while playing an international tournament in the Dominican Republic. When it happened, I wondered whether they tacitly had the approval of the Cuban government to do so, because they seemed so unlikely to defect up to that time.
If Yulieski is getting five-years and $47.5 million, I have to think Lourdes is going to get more than twice that. Lourdes is still only 22 years old, and while his level of play in the Serie Nacional did not approach that of his older brother, his offensive performance improved dramatically in each of his last two Cuban seasons.
With what appear to be roughly five Serie Nacional seasons under his belt (he’s played in six different Serie Nacional seasons), Lourdes should be a true free agent, but according to mlbtraderumors.com he is currently subject to international bonus pool limits, because he is not yet 23 years old.
Most likely, Lourdes will elect to sign after October 19th of this year, his 23rd birthday, when he will become a true free agent. My guess is an announcement of his signing will be made on that date, and he will immediately be sent to play in the Arizona Fall League.