SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic—There was a buzz across the island Monday upon news that Yulieski Gurriel and younger brother Lourdes Jr. had fled the Cuban team at the Caribbean Series so they could each pursue a contract with a major league team.
Yulieski, 31, is the best player in Cuba. We ranked him as the No. 1 Cuban player still on the island last year in April, and now that he’s hit .500/.589/.874 with just three(!) strikeouts in 224 plate appearances this season with 38 walks and 15 home runs, he’s only further cemented his status as the country’s top player. Yes, his prime years are behind him, but he’s still an offensive force who can play good defense at third base and would be an option at second base as well, with the ability to step into the top or the middle of a major league lineup immediately.
Lourdes Jr. is 22 and would need time in the minors first. His lanky, long-armed frame and skill set make him a different type of player than Yulieski, without the same present ability or ultimate ceiling either, but he’s a talented prospect who is going to draw plenty of attention. He’s mostly played left field this season, but he has experience at shortstop and third base (the position Yulieski played for their Industriales team in Cuba), so he’s likely going to move back to the infield when he works out for teams.
But if you’re expecting the Gurriel brothers to sign and start playing games for an MLB team in 2016, you’re probably going to be disappointed. The process for Cuban players to become eligible to sign takes several months, and in the case of Lourdes Jr., he is unlikely to sign anyway until October.
To be exempt from the international bonus pools, players must be at least 23 and have played five seasons in a foreign professional league, such as Cuba’s Serie Nacional. Lourdes Jr. already has more than five seasons in Serie Nacional, but he doesn’t turn 23 until Oct. 19.
Assuming Gurriel obtains competent representation, there is no way he is going to sign before Oct. 19. If he signs before then, he will be subject to the bonus pools. Not only will at least 10 teams be unable to sign him for more than $300,000 (including the Dodgers, Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox) as a penalty for exceeding their bonus pools in previous years, but because his contract would surely break a team’s pool, that team would have to pay a 100 percent tax on its pool overage. That was the case when the Red Sox signed Yoan Moncada; the Red Sox paid the player a $31.5 million bonus, then paid an additional $31.5 million in tax to MLB. If Lourdes Jr. were to sign before Oct. 19, the commissioner’s office would essentially be taking away half of his money.
By waiting until he turns 23 to sign, Lourdes Jr. will be exempt from the bonus pools, freeing him to sign a major league contract (pool-eligible players have to sign minor league deals) and the team that signs him won’t have to pay any taxes. And since any team can sign players who are exempt from the bonus pools—even the ones in the penalty box for exceeding their pools—30 teams that could compete for his services.
Waiting for Oct. 19 to sign is a no-brainer. And, assuming he gets cleared to sign in time, he should sign between then and Dec. 1, which is when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires. There are no guarantees about what will happen to international players in the next CBA, so it makes sense for him to sign before Dec. 1.
There is more uncertainty about when Yulieski will sign, but it certainly won’t be before Opening Day; it might be after the all-star break and it might even be after the regular season ends.
Cuban players have to go through a lengthy ordeal to become free agents. First, they have to establish residency in another country. Then they have to wait for the commissioner’s office to clear them to sign. Those are both time-consuming processes, though various folks involved in the handling of Cuban players have found that bribery can expedite matters.
Right now, there are more than 100 Cuban players off the island, many of whom are waiting for the commissioner’s office to declare them a free agent. Take outfielder Jorge Ona, one of the best young Cuban prospects out there. He left Cuba six months ago and is still not cleared to sign. Randy Arozarena, another talented young Cuban prospect, went seven months between leaving Cuba and getting cleared to sign.
Many other Cuban players have faced similar timetables. While MLB no longer requires Cuban players to obtain a specific license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), there is still a bottleneck in the time between when players apply for free agency and when the commissioner’s office clears them to sign. In theory, the process should be simple enough. The commissioner’s office has said that they are only looking to determine whether a player has residency that would make him subject to the draft or subject to the international signing system before clearing the player. That seems simple enough, yet the lag time can still take months, and with more Cuban players going through that process than ever before, that window might continue to grow.
So if Yulieski takes seven months to get cleared, that would make him a free agent in September. Then he would sign, he would need to get a visa and he would likely need some type of acclimation period to get back up to competitive game speed, even if he is facing live pitching leading up to his signing. At that point, we’re talking about the very end of the 2016 season. He might be able to get into some major league games to finish out the 2016 season, but he too might be looking at a 2017 debut.
For Lourdes Jr., he’s still 22, with his best years ahead of him, so waiting until October won’t hurt his career and it will strongly enhance his earning power. For Yulieski, who turns 32 in June, that potential loss of an entire year is more significant. They’re both players worthy of the excitement they are going to generate, but we’re still a long ways from seeing them start their careers with a major league franchise.