On Monday, it was reported that a pair of well-known Cuban baseball players defected from the island with their dreams of playing Major League Baseball. Yulieski Gurriel, 31, and his younger brother Lourdes Gurriel Jr., defected following the conclusion of the Caribbean Series on Sunday (and, in the process of this defection, had their surnames changed from Gourriel to Gurriel).
The more fascinating of the two is Lourdes, who at 22 years old is still a prospect, and a real good one at that, as MLB's Jesse Sanchez says he compares favorably to a potential top-15 pick in the 2016 draft. The thing is, he also has no chance of being signed by the Red Sox, even if he was only a prospect who needed to start in the minors. Well, at least, no chance yet, as there are some international signing rules that need to be dismissed before they can even consider it.
Almost a year ago exactly, the Red Sox signed a different Cuban prospect, Yoan Moncada. They did this in part because they had already gone over their international signing budget in order to guarantee they signed Anderson Espinoza on July 2, 2014 -- the first day of the 2014-2015 signing period -- and were going to be subject to the punishments that overages like that incur. When a team exceeds their international spending allotment, they are not allowed to sign players to bonuses of over $300,000 for the next two signing periods.
Realizing that any chance at a Moncada-esque prospect was being taken away from them between July 2, 2015 and the conclusion of the 2016-2017 international signing period, they went all-in on Moncada, agreeing to a $31.5 million deal that actually cost them twice as much thanks to the other form of overage penalties. The Sox didn't mind losing their ability to sign large international bonuses for two years, because they had agreed to a deal with Espinoza -- who has already become a top-100 prospect after his age-17 season -- and then managed to nab the five-tool Moncada at the tail end of the period, too.
You sign these international players immediately when you get the chance, because by the time the next class shows up, your guys are a year older and that much closer to contributing. They're so far off -- often 16 years old -- that if you see one player you like that much more than others (such as Espinoza) that it's worth going for them. Sometimes, a player from Cuba will defect and make you look silly for the urgency, but that didn't bite the Red Sox with Moncada. It could with Lourdes Gurriel.
This isn't meant to be a criticism of the Sox' methods on the international market. As said, Espinoza is a top-100 prospect even though he hasn't pitched a full season of, well, full-season ball yet, and Moncada is the organization's top prospect who was listed as the number seven overall prospect in the game by both Baseball Prospectus and MLB. The Sox are doing just fine with the choices they've made, thank you very much. However, they are left out of Gurriel the Younger's market for now.
The key to that, though, as you probably guessed by the headline and the previous sentence, is the "for now" part.
Lourdes Gurriel is 22 years old, but turns 23 in October. Cuban players age 23 or older with at least five seasons of play in a professional Cuban league are not subject to the restrictions of the international signing market -- it's why Yulieski Gurriel will be a standard free agent once the proper paperwork is filed by the appropriate parties. It can take quite some time for a Cuban player to be recognized as a free agent by Major League Baseball -- Moncada, for instance, left Cuba legally with a visa, established residence elsewhere, and became eligible to sign in MLB as an international free agent, but even with the legal nature of his departure it still took over six months for him to be unblocked and therefore eligible to sign.
The Gurriels defected just this past Sunday, so let's say they get unblocked in six months' time -- and that might be an optimistic estimate. That would make them available to sign sometime in August. Now, if Lourdes Gurriel has already waited until August, when minor-league seasons are coming to a close and there is just a month left of the big-league season, and he's just spent six-plus months not playing baseball, why would he sign then? He could wait until he turns 23, making all 30 teams eligible to sign him, and become one of the most significant pieces of a thin free agent class.
It's not just the Red Sox who would be able to sign Lourdes Gurriel were he to wait until October, through his own choice or that of MLB's unblocking process. The Yankees, Angels, Diamondbacks, Rays, Dodgers, Giants, Cubs, Royals, and Blue Jays are all dealing with the penalty for the 2016-2017 signing period, and are therefore ineligible to sign Gurriel were he to enter free agency through the international avenue. There is the sheer number of teams to consider, but also that whole "Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox" thing -- would any free agent avoid potentially getting them involved in the bidding if they have the chance to do so?
The Red Sox might not have an obvious place for Lourdes Gurriel right now, as he's a shortstop and center fielder, but things could be different come October. If only one -- or neither -- of Rusney Castillo or Jackie Bradley Jr. pan out, then there is suddenly room in the outfield. If Andrew Benintendi or Yoan Moncada see their rise through the minors delayed with a slower 2016, then Gurriel is suddenly a more attractive piece. There is always the matter of simply acquiring talent because you can, too -- it's not like there is an obvious place for Moncada in Boston, either at the time he was signed or even now. Having him beats the alternative, though.
Where Gurriel ends up is anyone's guess at this stage, though. And that goes for either of them, really. No one knows exactly when they'll be declared free agents or when they'll officially be unblocked to sign, and no one knows if they prefer getting paid as soon as possible to as much as possible. Are they going to be a package deal? Will that change the shape of the market? These are things we don't and can't know just yet. What we do know, however, is that the Red Sox can't sign Lourdes Gurriel Jr. unless he decides to hold off on his free agency until he's 23. So, as far as Boston is concerned, the pair's defection doesn't involve them until October at the earliest.