How Much Will Yulieski Gourriel Cost?

Five weeks before the trade deadline, contenders are starting to ramp up discussions on moves that would bolster their rosters for the stretch run, but this year, there’s a wrinkle. For teams looking to add an offensive upgrade, there’s also a free agent to consider: Cuban superstar Yulieski Gourriel. The infielder was the country’s best hitter before he and his brother left the country in pursuit of Major league jobs, and MLB recently cleared him to sign on and get his career underway. Instead of giving up talent from their farm system, a team could simply spend money to add Gourriel, and the ability to upgrade with budget room only has to appeal to a number of clubs.

But, of course, the question will be how much money the 32 year old Gourriel is going to cost. Every team would take him if the price was low enough, but because of the high incentives for large-revenue teams to spend on international free agents, Cuban players have increasingly been getting significant guarantees. And, unfortunately for Gourriel, the last batch of players to cash in after leaving the island have been a miserable failure.

A year ago, in a similar situation — Olivera was 30 when he signed, though not as well regarded as Gourriel is now — the Dodgers gave Hector Olivera a six year, $63 million contract. The Dodgers traded him to Atlanta a few months later, however, and since joining the Braves, things have gone very poorly; he put up an 84 wRC+ in 108 plate appearances before getting suspended under the league’s domestic violence policy. Before Olivera, there was Rusney Castillo, who got $72 million from the Red Sox, and last week, was outrighted off the 40 man roster; they aren’t interested in putting him in the big leagues even as every other left fielder in the organization gets hurt. Before Castillo, there was Yasmany Tomas, who got $69 million from the Diamondbacks, and has produced -1.6 WAR to this point, and now looks like a very expensive Delmon Young clone.

With their 2013 signing of Jose Abreu, the White Sox came out way ahead, but that year also saw teams waste all of the money they gave to Alex Guerrero, Erisbel Arruebarrena, and Miguel Gonzalez. Now, Gourriel is considered to be better than all these guys, but just as the success of Yoneis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman, Yasiel Puig helped create the explosion in demand for Cuban defectors, it is difficult to believe that the huge amounts of wasted money in this market won’t lead to a more conservative contract for Gourriel. Especially considering his age.

With young free agents like Tomas, Abreu, and Castillo, teams could afford to wait out a transition period, as the potential for long-term value offset the risks of buying an unknown. After all, the upside on a successful signing for six years of control over a quality player is immense, and so the rewards justify a higher level of risk. But Gourriel is 32, and it’s unlikely that he’ll still be a productive player in four or five years, so this deal doesn’t come with the long-term upside of buying maybe a franchise player at a big discount. This deal is all about short-term value, about how much Gourriel can help a team win right now, or over the next couple of years.

And realistically, that remains an unknown. Gourriel dominated Cuba in part by completely owning the strike zone — he walked 38 times against just three strikeouts in his final season in Cuba — but strike zone control is one part of the game that hasn’t translated particularly well to the Major Leagues. And if Gourriel is more of a gap-power guy than an elite slugger, big league pitchers aren’t going to be afraid to throw him strikes, making it difficult to work the count until he shows he can do damage on pitches in the zone.

Perhaps he will do that. Some people are quite high on him, including Baseball America’s Ben Badler, who knows more about Cuban players than anyone writing in the public sphere. Badler’s scouting report on him was pretty glowing when he ranked him the best prospect in Cuba a couple of years back.

Gourriel has all the attributes to be an above-average offensive player. He has plus bat speed and squares up all types of pitches with good hand-eye coordination and barrel control. He wraps his barrel behind his head, angling the bat toward the pitcher, but he gets the barrel into the hitting zone quickly and has good plate coverage. He stays within the strike zone and uses the whole field, and with plus raw power on the 20-80 scale, he offers a balance of being able to hit for average, get on base and hit for power.

Badler went on to compare him to David Wright, and coincidentally, the Mets happen to have a hole at third base because Wright is currently on the DL. The Mets are working Gourriel out next week. There’s a fit there, especially if they think Gourriel could shift to second base next year, when Neil Walker potentially leaves via free agency.

But we can’t ignore the fact that Gourriel might not be what he once was. We know that major league aging curves have gotten very steep for players over 30, and teams have gotten more and more reluctant to spend big money on even proven star players once they start getting up there in age. Alex Gordon, for instance, got $72 million over four years this winter, heading into his age-32 season, even after a five year run as an elite big league performer.

There’s no way to think that Gourriel doesn’t come with substantially more risk than a player like Gordon, and should be priced accordingly, but then again, Olivera just got $63 million last spring, and everyone agrees Gourriel is a significantly better talent. But does it make any sense for Gourriel to land more guaranteed money than proven big league All-Stars, given that there’s no long-term value to bet on here?

Realistically, the scouting report for Gourriel doesn’t even sound that different from what you’d write about Daniel Murphy; a 2B/3B with good command of the strike zone and some power. Murphy got $38 million over three years from the Nationals for his age 31-33 seasons, and that was after the league saw him crush the best pitchers in baseball last October. As an aging above-average hitter with enough defensive value to play a couple of infield positions at a non-embarrassing level, Murphy was mostly ignored by the market, and only ended up on the Nationals because Ben Zobrist wouldn’t take their money and Brandon Phillips wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause.

But, of course, Murphy wasn’t a free agent in the middle of the season, when the supply of available alternatives is dramatically diminished. And Gourriel won’t cost the signing teams a draft choice, which has become a highly valued asset throughout the game. Those are significant factors, and for a team like the Dodgers, perhaps the ability to buy an asset with nothing but money will lead them to spend far more than we might expect.

But it feels like it’s time for a market correction when it comes to Cuban free agents, and Gourriel’s lack of long-term upside makes it harder to sell this as a speculative bet that returns so much value when it works that it’s worth accepting the high failure rate. This is the kind of move that will give the signing team zero value if their assessment of his present value proves overly optimistic, and given how poorly teams have done at projecting Cuban hitters in prior years, I don’t know how a team can confidently state that they know what Gourriel will do in the big leagues.

Given the uncertainty and his age, it seems like a rational contract would be a short-term play, perhaps something like a two or three year deal in that $10 million a year salary range that most of the other Cuban defectors have gotten on longer-term commitments. Given that the Dodgers are in the bidding, we should probably take the over on the rational market price, though, so maybe it pushes up towards $50 million, and the signing team spreads out the cost over four or five years in order to reduce the luxury tax hit. Or maybe we’re not going to get a market correction just yet, and he gets more than Olivera, Castillo, or Tomas based on being a better talent than those three.

But given the recent outrights of Guerrero and Castillo, the current struggles of previously successful examples like Abreu, Puig, and Jorge Soler, and the move away from big money to aging free agents, its feels like Gourriel is entering a market that is setup to be a bit less accepting of risks than it has been previously. So if he ends up having to settle for something like $30 million, it might not be a rejection of him as a player, but an acknowledgment that the prices paid to previous Cuban free agents were out of line with the confidence teams should have in projecting the performance of players making the transition. Just as other free agents aren’t able to benchmark themselves against prior free agent mistakes, Gourriel shouldn’t automatically get more than Olivera just because he’s a better player.

But just like with the teams and Gourriel’s expected performance, we’re basically guessing. I won’t be surprised by any contract figure between $20 million and $60 million, which is a pretty wide range. The Dodgers factor can’t be ignored, and since they don’t seem to have a budget, perhaps they’ll just say this is worth the risk to protect their farm system from having to make a July trade. But based on what we do and don’t know about projecting players transitioning to MLB, and how aging curves have changed, I don’t think I’d be rushing to give Gourriel the Olivera contract, or anything close to it.

If I was in charge, I’d probably top out around $30 to $35 million, but my confidence in that evaluation is not particularly high. In the next few weeks, we’ll find out if an MLB team is more confident in their evaluation, and if they are, whether that confidence is valid. Given the recent results in this market, we probably shouldn’t be that confident that we can project Gourriel with any kind of real precision.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Brian Reinhart
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Member

Dave, today might be a good day for you to chat with Nationals beat reporter Mark Zuckerman, who for years has gotten mail & angry tweets from people who don’t like Facebook.

Joser
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Joser

And will the subject of their discussion be a certain brick set?