On Monday, we learned Major League Baseball has officially declared Cuban infielder Yulieski Gurriel a free agent. He defected in February and is now able to sign with any team. Gurriel will need some time in the minors to get up to speed, though the expectation is he will be ready to help in the second half of the season.
Gurriel, who turned 32 last week, is widely considered the best hitter in the world not in MLB. His numbers in Cuba last season are truly unbelievable: .500/.589/.874 with 20 doubles, 15 home runs, 38 walks, and only three strikeouts in 49 games. I'm not sure I could do that in a video game on rookie. Here's some video from Gurriel's time with the Yokohama Bay Stars in 2014:
By all accounts Gurriel can step right into a big league lineup and be an impact hitter. Baseball America's Ben Balder says Gurriel has "all the attributes to be an above-average offensive player" because he "offers a balance of being able to hit for average, get on base and hit for power." Balder compared him to peak Hanley Ramirez and David Wright.
Gurriel has primarily played second and third bases throughout his career, though he has dabbled a little in center field and at shortstop. My guess is big league teams will look at him as a second or third baseman only. Which teams could most use Gurriel? These six jump to mind.
The first place Indians aren't having much trouble scoring runs this year. They rank ninth among the 30 clubs with an average of 4.68 runs per game. That said, Cleveland is not getting much from third baseman Juan Uribe (52 OPS+), and surely wants to hold off the Royals and clinch its first playoff berth since 2013 and second since 2007.
The problem here is money. The Indians are on a very strict budget and may not be able to afford Gurriel, who figures to command eight figures annually. He makes perfect sense on the field though. The Indians have a hole at third base (short and long-term) and Gurriel would improve their chances of winning while that stellar rotation is cheap and under control these next few years.
Kansas City Royals
Defending that World Series title is not coming easy for the Royals, who come into Tuesday at 33-30 and two games back of the Indians in the AL Central. They're trying to catch Cleveland without Alex Gordon (wrist) and Mike Moustakas (knee), who are out long-term. Moustakas is done for the year with a torn ACL.
Gurriel would step in to replace Moustakas at third base this year, then next season when Moustakas returns, he could shift to second to replace the Omar Infante-Christian Colon-Whit Merrifield tag team. Kansas City's second basemen have combined for an 82 OPS+ this year. Ouch. Gurriel is a fit right now and going forward.
The Royals have aggressively raised their payroll over the last few seasons -- their payroll is $131.5 million this year, up from $64 million in 2012 -- and they're trying to win while their core players (Moustakas, Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Wade Davis, etc.) are under control and in their primes. Gurriel fits that timetable perfectly.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels are in a weird place right now. They've lost eight of their last 10 games to fall into last place in the AL West, plus their farm system is by far the worst in baseball. A situation like that would normally call for a complete tear down and rebuild. Except the Angels have Mike Trout through 2020 and they want to win during that time, so they don't want to go into a prolonged rebuild.
Gurriel would help add some offensive punch -- the Halos have Yunel Escobar (114 OPS+) at third, but Johnny Giavotella (87 OPS+) should be considered replaceable at second -- and give the team another building block around Trout. He only costs money, remember. No draft pick, no trading prospects, nothing. And you know what, if worst comes to worst, Gurriel represents a future trade chip that could fetch prospects.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers make more sense for Gurriel than any other team and vice versa. By far, in my opinion. Here are the reasons:
- The Dodgers are trying to win right now, and at age 32, Gurriel is a win-now player. He's ready to help.
- They need offense badly. Los Angeles is averaging only 4.11 runs per game in 2016. Yikes.
- Third baseman Justin Turner has been better of late, but he's not having a good season overall (84 OPS+).
- Turner and second baseman Chase Utley will be free agents after the season and the Dodgers do not have any obvious long-term replacements. (Sorry, Howie Kendrick and Micah Johnson.)
- The Dodgers could offer Gurriel more money than just about anyone.
Gurriel would give the Dodgers a big offensive boost in the short-term and fill a position of need in the long-term, regardless of whether he settles in at second or third base. Los Angeles has invested heavily in Cuban players in recent years -- it's not just Yasiel Puig, they've signed others like Alex Guerrero, Erisbel Arruebarrena, Hector Olivera, Yasiel Sierra, and Yusniel Diaz to big money deals -- so Gurriel is right up their alley.
This makes too much sense not to happen, really. Gurriel is a great fit for the Dodgers and the Dodgers are a great fit for Gurriel. It's a match made in baseball heaven.
The Marlins have been known to spend big on free agents from time to time. Dee Gordon remains entrenched at second base, but Martin Prado will be a free agent after the season, and the club doesn't have a ready-made third base replacement. There's a clear opening for Gurriel. Heck, they could sign Gurriel, put him at third in the second half, and trade Prado at the deadline.
Also, having a Cuban born star like Gurriel on the roster certainly wouldn't be a bad thing for the Marlins given the population of Cuban-Americans in Miami. There would be more to this signing than on-field value. Gurriel offers legitimate marquee value that would help put butts in the seats. Teams absolutely consider things like that when making roster decisions.
New York Mets
Once again, scoring runs has been a real problem for the Mets. They're averaging only 3.69 runs and are without David Wright, Lucas Duda, and Travis d'Arnaud due to injuries. Wright is the big one here because he is the team's starting third baseman, the position Gurriel would fill.
Gurriel would give the Mets a fill-in for Wright this year and also an option at both second and third going forward. Wright needs regular days off to manage his spinal stenosis and will the rest of his career. Also, Neil Walker will be a free agent after the season, and the Mets figure to replace him with prospect Dilson Herrera. Gurriel provides depth at both positions.
What will it cost to sign Gurriel? That's the big question and it will ultimately determine whether a budget conscious club like the Indians or Marlins can even get involved in the bidding. Here are the last three big name Cuban position players to sign with MLB teams, and their contracts:
- Hector Olivera, Dodgers: Six years and $62.5 million.
- Yasmany Tomas, Diamondbacks: Six years and $68.5 million.
- Rusney Castillo, Red Sox: Six years and $72 million.
Yes, Gurriel is older than those three players -- Tomas signed at 24, Castillo at 27, and Olivera at 29 -- but he's also considered a much better player with a much longer track record of dominance. (And unlike Olivera, Gurriel doesn't have a scary injury history.)
The upcoming free agent market is very weak and light on true impact hitters. Gurriel figures to be the best hitter available on the open market over the next 17 months or so, which could work in his favor. I don't think it would be unreasonable to ask for $100 million, even at age 32.
Of course, asking for $100 million and getting $100 million are two different things. The Castillo deal -- which hasn't worked out for Boston at all -- has set the floor at $12 million annually. Given inflation and his general awesomeness, Gurriel could be worth $15 million per year this summer.