All the hype surrounding the migration of Cuban baseball talent has waned a bit these days, simply because most of these players have not lived up to expectations. That will all change in about a month. Yulieski Gourriel, the island’s most respected superstar since the turn of the century, has shockingly defected and has been cleared to sign a major league contract.
Gourriel, a third baseman by trade who can also play corner outfield, doesn’t really “wow” a fan with flamboyance. He doesn’t hit 450-foot home runs and is not necessarily what scouts refer to as a “five-tool” player. Instead, Gourriel leads by example with a strong work ethic and a reputation of being “Mr. Clutch,” similar to an Ichiro Suzuki or Derek Jeter. This is a guy who broke in with the Serie Nacional big boys at age 17 and has played for 15 straight seasons, compiling a lifetime offensive slash line of .337/.421/.582. In fact, he is an elite player. In addition, Gourriel has blasted 239 career home runs along with 118 stolen bases. Defensive shifts will never work against this veteran because he drives the ball to all fields with amazing consistency.
The Gourriel clan might appropriately be called the “First Family” of Cuban baseball, so Yulieski has been blessed with a good pedigree. Lourdes Gourriel Sr., Yulieski’s father, was a giant force on top Cuban teams from 1976-1995, and won a gold medal in the 1992 club that captured the Olympic Games. Along with several uncles who played professionally, the Gourriel family has been fiercely loyal to the Castro regime. As a trusted hero, Yulieski was allowed to play for a year in Japan in 2014, where he hit at a .305/.349/.536 clip with 11 jacks. The player was appreciative, although the government kept a portion of his salary. Reality seemed to set in last year when Yulieski hit a scorching .500 in 224 plate appearances during the regular Cuban season. There was nothing left to prove and at age 31, a golden opportunity to play in the States was starting to slip away.
So last February after the conclusion of the Caribbean Series in the Dominican Republic, Gourriel made a decision nobody saw coming. Under the dark of night, Yulieski walked out of the team’s Santo Domingo hotel with younger brother Lourdes Jr., a budding prospect, and the pair sped away in a black van. Both men knew the consequences would be serious for family left behind, but felt certain their strong following would understand.
“We are working hard and training every day to accomplish our dreams to play in the Major Leagues,” the elder Gourriel conveyed through an MLB media representative.
The fact that numerous teams have received little bang for their buck with Cuban players in the past could hurt Yulieski Gourriel’s chances to land a big money deal. Then again, that might not matter to contending teams wishing to win now and seek his veteran presence, plus the ability to contribute immediately. Due to length of service in the Serie Nacional, Yulieski is an unconditional free agent and not subject to international pool money restrictions. In the case of Lourdes Jr., a 22-year-old shortstop, clubs that have exceeded their expenditures would be ineligible to sign the youngster. Thus far, the favorites in the Gourriel sweepstakes are the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees, and neither organization would be able to land little brother in the upcoming July 2 signing period.
“We would like to play together on the same team, have my brother near me,” notes Yulieski. “But if the circumstances don’t permit it and we have to go different paths, that’s what we will do.”
Gourriel has already worked out privately for the Dodgers with jaw-dropping results. Similar arrangements are expected to take place this week with the Yankees and New York Mets, and the Houston Astros are also said to be in the mix. Now 32, Yulieski Gourriel can realistically figure to entertain offers of anywhere between $30 to $50 million in a three-year package. That might seem like a lot of cash, but it’s actually quite a bargain for one of the best players to ever come out of Cuba. Just ask executives from the Boston Red Sox, who inked Rusney Castillo to a $72.5 million pact in 2014. Two years later, the powerful Cuban is still being shuttled between Fenway Park and the minor leagues.