Influx of Cuban Players to Japan’s NPB Continues
In an interesting piece of international news, the Yokohama Bay Stars today announced that they had not only re-signed Yulieski Gourriel for 2015, but also signed his younger brother Yunielkis (Baseball America refers to him as Lourdes). No word yet on what they’ll be getting paid, but my guess is that Yulieski will be getting around $3 million (less whatever substantial cut the Cuban government gets) and that Yunielkis, who is only 21, will be getting somewhere between $200,000 and $500,000.
Since Yulieski will be 31 in June and isn’t likely to defect, he doesn’t hold much interest for MLB at this point, although he has long been regarded as one of the best players in Cuba. Yunielkis, however, is still young enough that if in the next six to eight years Cuban players are allowed to play in MLB without first having to defect, he’ll still be young enough have a successful MLB career.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Yunielkis will start Japan’s 2015 season on the Bay Stars’ minor league squad to allow him to transition to the Japanese game. How long he stays down on the farm obviously depends on how quickly he adjusts.
Cuban defector Yoslan Herrara will also be playing for the Bay Stars in 2015.
Meanwhile, the Yomiuri Giants are apparently bringing back all three of the Cubans (one defector and two non-defectors) who played for them last season. I’m a bit surprised they are bringing back Frederich Cepeda, who hit only .194 for Yomiuri last year and turns 35 in April. However, he did hit with power and had more walks than hits.
Pitcher Hector Mendoza is a more interesting prospect. He reportedly has a big fastball and at age 20 pitched briefly (5.2 innings pitched) last year for Yomiuri’s minor league team.
At this point, the question is how many more Cuban players will end up in NPB. NPB still has its four man roster limit on the major league roster, although each team can sign additional players to play on the minor league club. In fact, this has now become the norm, so that if a foreigner gets hurt or is ineffective at the major league level, the team can immediately call up another foreigner to fill the roster spot.
However, it appears certain now that Cuba will continue to allow players to play in NPB if the money is right for all involved. Even so, because the MLB market for top Cuban talent is astronomically high, added to the fact that many Cuban players would much rather test their skills in MLB and live in the U.S. than in Japan, there is no reason to think that the very best young prospects won’t still try to defect.