Two Cubans long considered to be among the best players in the world outside Major League Baseball now appear headed for the big leagues.
In a move that will send ripples through the MLB free-agent market, infielders Yulieski Gurriel and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., both superstars in the Cuban National Series, walked away from their team hotel after a tournament in Dominican Republic early Monday morning.
They are the younger brothers of Yuniesky Gurriel, 33, a centre fielder who made history last year as one of four Cubans allowed by the Castro government to play for the Quebec Capitales of the independent Can-Am League. It was the first time Cubans were permitted to play professionally in Canada and the United States without having to defect, and was seen as a precursor to a future deal between the Cuban Baseball Federation and MLB.
The high-profile defections caught the baseball world off guard, given the Gurriel family's close ties to the Castro government and the fact that both brothers have turned down opportunities to defect before. Yulieski, 31, and Lourdes Jr., who is 22, were adamant over the past year that they only wanted to play in the majors with the permission of their government. Their father, Lourdes Gurriel Sr., is close with Fidel and Raul Castro, and is considered a legend in Cuban baseball.
In an interview in Havana in late October, Yulieksi, a slugging third baseman who leads the Cuban league with a .500 batting average this season, told The Globe and Mail he fielded numerous offers from MLB scouts in the past. "I have waited all my life, always [waiting for] Cuba's permission to play," he said.
It's not clear what changed the Gurriel brothers' minds, though it's possible they grew impatient with the progress of talks between Cuba and MLB, which began last year after Washington and Havana re-established diplomatic relations. A report by Cuban newspaper Granma on Monday left little question as to the circumstances of their departure. The newspaper, considered a platform for the Cuban government, said the two brothers had abandoned the team with "an open attitude of surrender to the merchants of professional baseball for profit."
Perhaps more surprising about the defections is that they come at a time when Cuba has started to let players pursue big-league dreams on their own. Last month, the Cuban government allowed outfielder and former National Series home run king Alexei Bell board a flight out of Havana to pursue MLB free agency, making him one of the first players to be granted such permission since Fidel Castro took over in 1959 and banned professional baseball. Bell, 32, was one of the four players who took part in the historic deal with the Quebec Capitales last year. He is now training in Mexico, hoping to impress scouts at a showcase next week.
The two youngest Gurriel brothers, however, were darlings of the Cuban baseball program. Yulieski, a two-time league MVP who scouts figure could make an immediate impact in the Major Leagues, hit 15 home runs in 224 plate appearances with the Havana Industriales this season, in addition to his unusually high batting average. In an interview this fall, Cuba's national baseball commissioner, Heriberto Suarez, called Yulieski "our best player."
Though not as MLB-ready as his brother, shortstop Lourdes Jr. has a significant upside. He won't turn 23 until October, and was hitting .344 in 245 at-bats with the Industriales this season, with 10 home runs. "For all baseball players, getting to the highest level is the biggest goal," he said in an interview in October. "It's not a secret that MLB is the highest."
MLB officials are seeking a deal with Cuba amid growing concern about the human trafficking of baseball players from the island country. Cases such as that of Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who was held captive by his smugglers as they negotiated a ransom with agents in the United States, have created a situation the league can no longer ignore.
The league would also like to institute an international MLB draft, which may have provided another reason for the Gurriels to abandon Cuba. The past few years have seen a surge in players leaving the island country to seek free agency, hoping to avoid a draft: Cuban players who enter MLB now through a third country such as the Dominican Republic, Venezuela or Mexico, can sign for tens of millions of dollars as free agents, while draft picks are subject to entry-level contract limits.
For now, it is not clear what impact the defections will have on the eldest Gurriel brother. Michel Laplante, president of the Quebec Capitales, said the team hopes to have Yuniesky back for another season in Canada this spring. He led the Can-Am League in hitting with a .374 average in 270 at-bats last season. As well, the Can-Am is preparing to host a roster of Cuban national-team players, who are scheduled to play games throughout the league this summer.