The Blue Jays made a splash in the international free agent market last week with the signing of Cuban IF/Or Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
The 5th-ranked Cuban prospect last season by Baseball America, Gurriel is the younger brother of Yuliesky Gourriel, who made his MLB debut with the Astros last year. The pair defected last February when they were playing in a tournament in the Dominican Republic. The younger Gurriel, who turned pro in Cuba's Serie Nacional when he was 16, waited until he turned 23 a few weeks ago to sign with an MLB team in order to bypass international bonus pool rules. The Blue Jays have reportedly signed Gurriel to a 7-year, $22 million contract. He has not played in almost a year since defecting.
Gurriel has excellent baseball bloodlines. In addition to brother Yuliesky, oldest sibling Yuniesky played in the Serie Nacional, and his father Lourdes Sr is something of a baseball icon in Cuba, having starred in the Serie, and served as a coach on the Cuban national team. With dad a member of Cuba's Communist party, the younger brothers were considered to be unlikely signs until their defections.
BA staffer Ben Badler has written extensively about top Cuban prospects, and last year ranked the younger Gurriel as the 4th-top island hopeful. Badler gave Gurriel a Category 5 (out of 5), indicating that he's quite confident Gurriel has a future in the bigs. He's impressed with Gurriel's hit tool:
Eric Longerhans of Fangraphs says the reports he's had from international scouts on Gurriel profile a solid, if unspectacular, player. There is some question about his bat, largely due to his lengthy layoff:Gourriel is a smart hitter with a chance to get on base at a high clip and drive the ball for power. He improved his balance at the plate this past season, keeping his hands inside the ball well for someone with his long arms with a fluid swing. Gourriel has plenty of bat speed to catch up to good fastballs and the plate coverage to make frequent contact. He can have trouble at times against slow breaking balls, but he has good strike-zone discipline and a patient approach, giving him a chance to be a plus hitter with a high OBP. Gourriel flashes above-average raw power with the swing path to generate backspin and leverage the ball for loft in games, making him a 20-homer threat.
Offensively, it’s been a while since scouts have seen Gurriel in an in-game setting and his timing against live pitching has come into question. Timing is going to be especially important for Gurriel, whose swing can get long due to lever length and features more of a ground-ball plane than it does the sort of loft typically associated with corner-worthy power. He has above-average raw pop but scouts are concerned that he might not tap into it due to contact issues and the bat path. Gurriel’s measurables indicate that the body has more to give and that he might grow into more power as he ages, but he’s already 23 and his older brother Yulieski has remained lean into his 30s, so most scouts think the cement on the body is dry.
Gurriel can play three infield positions, and the corner outfield spots, although he played mostly left field when he last played in 2015 (his brother played 3rd). At 6'4", he may have outgrown Short Stop; Badler describes his range as fringy, and with his plus arm and bat, profiles more as a 3rd Baseman. Badler also mentioned Gurriel's long levers, and the difficulty he can have on inside pitches to Toronto's The Fan 590. Badler did tell The Fan that he's impressed with the improved quickness he has seen from Gurriel of late.
Despite his Cuban and international experience, Gurriel would have to be considered raw in stateside baseball terms. Where he begins 2017 will largely be a matter of how he performs in spring training. AA seems to be the consensus in the media, but how he responds to big league instruction and fares against more advanced pitching in the spring will determine his ultimate landing spot come next April. Given his lack of experience with cold weather, it might even be reasonable to expect him to spend the first several weeks of the season with High A Dunedin. He could blow past all expectations and start at Buffalo, but that seems unlikely. Some have suggested that Gurriel could supplant Richie Urena as the top SS prospect in the organization, and Troy Tulowitzki's successor, but the scouting reports would seem to indicate that his best bet for an MLB future is at a corner position.
BA compares Gurriel to Washington 3B Ryan Zimmerman, while Fangraphs suggests a Sean Rodriguez comp. Either way, the Blue Jays have landed a top international prospect - one who would not have been available to them, after they had gone over their bonus pool to sign Vladimir Guerrero Jr in 2015. Unlike some top IFAs who sign at 16 but top out at Low A, Gurriel appears to be almost a lock to be a major leaguer.
Whatever his ultimate position will be, the signing of Gurriel adds to the depth of the minor league organization. It's hard to put a timetable on him given his lack of minor league experience, but 2018 seems to be a safe bet for his MLB debut. Blue Jays fans should expect a player who's capable of hitting 20+ Home Runs, playing some sound defence, and demonstrating baserunning smarts. He's not Yoan Moncada, but he should be a serviceable, solid major league player.