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International Free Agent Profile: Vladimir Gutierrez

Vladimir Gutierrez Rodriguez, a promising right-handed pitcher, defected from Cuba during the Caribbean Series. Assuming he continues his baseball career, would he be a worthwhile addition to the Mets?

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The Cuban flag
The Cuban flag
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Vladimir Gutierrez Rodriguez was born on September 18, 1995, in Mantua, a municipality and city within the Pinar del Rijo province, home to roughly 26,000 people. Unlike most of those 26,000, Gutierrez exhibited a special talent growing up: he could throw a nine-inch sphere of cork, yarn, and leather roughly sixty feet with great speed and accuracy. As he refined his talent with age and experience, his skill came to the attention of Cuban manager Alfonso Urquiola. Urquiola was so impressed that he had the young right-hander added to the roster of Los Vegueros de Pinar del Rijo for the 53rd Serie Nacional de Beisbol, following in the footsteps of fellow right-handers Jose Contreras, Danys Baez, Yunesky Maya, and Alay Soler.

With a league-average fastball, a developing changeup, and a devastating curveball, the 18-year-old rookie could have been immediately inserted into Los Vegueros' starting rotation. Instead, he was forced into the bullpen due to the presence of Yosvani Torres, Vladamir Baños, Julio Martinez, and Erlis Casanova; there was simply no room for the promising rookie hurler. Gutierrez took it all in stride and proceeded to have a successful rookie season, posting a 3.90 ERA in 67 innings, the majority of them from the bullpen.

Gutierrez heated up at just the right time for Los Vegueros and was invaluable in the finals, when Pinar del Rijo took on Los Crocodilos de Matanzas. Gutierrez pitched six scoreless relief innings in game two, and held off a surging Matanzas over 1.2 innings in the clinching game six, allowing only a single run. In total, the right-hander posted a 2.18 ERA in the postseason and became just the second member of Los Vegueros to ever be named the Serie Nacional de Beisbol Rookie of the Year.

The 54th Serie Nacional began very much like the 53rd, as Los Vegueros relegated the reigning Rookie of the Year to the bullpen due to their strong rotation. After refining his pitching mechanics in the offseason, Gutierrez had an even more impressive sophomore campaign: in 41.2 innings, he posted a 2.45 ERA, while decreasing his walk rate by nearly 50%. Midway through the season, he was selected to represent Cuba in the 2015 Caribbean Games, the annual tournament of baseball-crazed countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Puerto Rico.

According to El Nuevo Herald, hours after losing to the Dominican Republic on Tuesday, February 3, Gutierrez left the team along with his teammate, shortstop Dainer Moreira. Williams Carmona, a Cuban defector in the American commonwealth who helps organize the safe passage of other Cubans looking to defect, claims that the two players were taken to an undisclosed place in Puerto Rico where they are safe, and are being provided with food, lodging, economic support, and advice on how to adjust to their new lives.

Shortly thereafter, the Cuban government issued a statement confirming their departure from the team. "They decided to leave the hotel," said Heriberto Suarez, national director of baseball in Cuba. "We met today and we're going to continue forward. We remain united and confident. We are very disappointed, but this will serve as a platform for us to carry on stronger and more unified. We will continue giving our best and will return to Cuba together." El Nuevo Herald reported that Roc Nation Sports, the sports agency founded by rapper Jay-Z, contacted Gutierrez, and that the two sides have kept in touch. Roc Nation Sports currently represents high-profile Cuban outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Rusney Castillo.

2013-2014 (53rd SNdB) 18 27/3 67 3.90 4.26 44 40
2014-2015 (54th SNdB) 19 25/3 51.1 2.45 2.84 49 19

Gutierrez stands at 6 feet three inches, and weighs 170 pounds. His tall, lanky frame leaves plenty of room to fill out and develop additional weight, muscle, and durability. Gutierrez's fastball sits in the 88-to-91-mph range, and tops out at 93. The right-hander complements his fastball with a tight curveball that Baseball America's Ben Badler calls "arguably the best curveball in Cuba," and a changeup that is mostly a get-me-over pitch, but which has flashed average at times.

During the 2013-2014 season, Gutierrez's control was spotty, mostly due to kinks in his mechanics: in 67 innings, he walked 40 batters. During the 2014-2015 season, the 19-year-old dramatically improved his walk rate, issuing just 19 free passes in 51.1 innings. Baseball America ranked the pitcher the 12th-best potential prospect in Cuba, and the third-best potential pitching prospect, behind right-handers Norge Ruiz and Vladamir Garcia—but with the potential to be better than both.

While Gutierrez has been used primarily out of the bullpen, that is less of a knock on him than it is a testament to Pinar del Rio's pitching strength. Scouts almost universally believe that Gutierrez has the physical make-up to be a starting pitcher. According to Badler, given Gutierrez's age and talent level, if he were eligible to be included in the MLB Amateur Draft, he would be selected within the first 100 picks, and possibly as high as in the second round.

Because of recent changes in official U.S. policies regarding Cuba, the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) does not have to issue Gutierrez a license. Instead, according to Yahoo! News's Jeff Passan, Cuban defectors simply must provide Major League Baseball with sworn affidavits "stating they are residents of another country, have no intention of returning to Cuba and are not Cuban government officials." Once his residency is established and MLB grants him free-agent status, the young right-hander will be eligible to be signed by any MLB club willing to tap into its international bonus pool.