Blue Jays: One of the best free agent signings since 2015
The Toronto Blue Jays have a pretty good player in Lourdes Gurriel Jr., but the contract the Blue Jays signed him to is what makes Gurriel Jr. even more valuable to this rebuilding roster.
When you think of the Toronto Blue Jays and their young core, one of the more unique players on the team is Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Brought up in the organization and in Cuba as a middle infielder, Gurriel Jr. made the switch to the outfield last season and has pretty much cemented himself as the Jays left fielder for the foreseeable future.
Gurriel Jr. was not your typical international free agent when he signed with the Blue Jays in 2016. Son of famed Cuban player Lourdes Gourriel, Junior spent 6 seasons in the Cuban National League, making his debut at just 16 years old for the Gallos de Sancti Spiritus.
While playing on Cuba’s Ciego de Avila team during the Caribbean Series in the Dominican Republic in 2016, Gurriel Jr. and his brother Yulieski would defect from the country, crossing from the DR into Haiti by way of smugglers, thus allowing the brothers to be one step closer to being eligible for international free agency. John Lott of The Athletic writes a fantastic article on Gurriel’s defection from Cuba and how he signed with the Blue Jays (there may be a paywall so warning in advance).
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Toronto would sign the then 23-year-old to a 7 year, $22 million contract during the 2016-2017 off-season. Under the collective bargaining agreement during that time, Lourdes had the option to wait until he was 23 years old or he would have been subject to international signing guidelines (if he were to sign before his birthday) which would have made him subject to each team’s international bonus pools rather than international free agency.
A fancy way of saying, wait a few months until you are 23 and you will have a much bigger payday. Once the MLB declared Gurriel Jr. a free agent on August 8th, 2016, the Blue Jays would sign him roughly one month after his October 10th birthday.
He would spend only one year in the MiLB before making his debut with the Blue Jays in 2018. Over the past three seasons, Gurriel Jr. has spent most of his time on the MLB roster but also saw a brief demotion to AAA Buffalo last year when he was struggling to make plays at shortstop and second base.
The Blue Jays then decided to shift Junior to left field while he was down in AAA and while his fielding/defense is still a work in progress given it is a new position, his arm and athleticism will most likely have him stay in the outfield while he is a member of the Blue Jays. He has already made spectacular highlight-reel catches and even had some fantastic throws to home over the past two seasons, which is why left-field is most likely his new home for the foreseeable future. One could argue that Gurriel Jr. does fit the utility role narrative, but it appears the organization may be shifting that responsibility to Cavan Biggio for the time being.
In his first three years in the MLB, Gurriel Jr. has accumulated a .286/.328/.511 slash line with 41 home runs, 114 RBI’s, and 178 strikeouts during his 732 at-bats in just 196 games.
When the Blue Jays signed Gurriel Jr., they were taking a rather small gamble on a young prospect that had no experience outside of Cuba. His brother was considered one of the top players in Cuba at the time of the defection, but it was Gurriel Jr. who was considered the ‘prospect’ and had the potential for more upside given his age and ability.
Mind you $22 million is a large sum of money to the average bear, but in a day and age where MLB players are earning tens of millions of dollars per season, the risk doesn’t look nearly that detrimental to the Blue Jays if he were to flame out like other Cuban prospects before him on other teams in the league.
As per Spotrac, Gurriel Jr. has three years left on his deal after the 2020 season before he will become eligible for arbitration in 2024 and free agency in 2025. Over the next three years, he will earn roughly $13.4 million in base salary, which is an incredible deal considering he will be 27 by the end of this year and has been one of the better bats in the Blue Jays lineup these past two seasons.
While Ross Atkins and Andrew Tinnish were responsible for the signing of Gurriel Jr., the Jays did have film and did have the young Cuban on their list of players to watch if he were to ever become eligible for international free agency years before signing him to a contract.
What makes Gurriel Jr. so important to the Blue Jays roster is not only his ability to play both at the plate and in the outfield but also because he isn’t costing the organization a fortune every year. That will most likely change when he reaches arbitration in 2024, and rightly so, but the Blue Jays will be getting Gurriel Jr. during his prime 27-30 years all while paying him almost the same as one year of pitcher Tanner Roark ($12 million per season).
The value that Gurriel Jr’s contract brings to a young rebuilding roster like the Blue Jays will allow the team to go out and spend money on free agents or possibly locking up other young stars on the team during their arbitration years.
The Blue Jays took a risk that a young international player would be able to make the jump from Cuba into the MLB, while Gurriel Jr. bet on himself that by taking guaranteed money upfront (which his contract is), he will not only be fulfilling his dream of playing MLB baseball but that he will line himself up for a bigger payday down the line if he plays like did in Cuba and his first few years with the Blue Jays. All in all, both the Blue Jays and Gurriel Jr. are benefiting from this contract and I cannot wait to see what he accomplishes over the next 3-4 years.