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International Free Agent Profile: Yulieski Gurriel

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Considered the best player to have played on the island in this past generation, Yulieski Gurriel is a free agent and is expected to sign with a Major League Baseball team. Would the infielder be a good fit for the Mets?

Yulieski Gurriel
Yulieski Gurriel
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In the hundred-plus years that Major League Baseball has existed, there have been more than 350 sets of brothers to have played baseball, more than 100 sets of fathers and sons to have played baseball, and multiple families to have seen three generations play the game. It would be a stretch to term baseball a "family business," but family dynasties have become fairly commonplace. This is true not only in the United States, but in countries across the world where baseball enjoys popularity.

Among the players in Cuba, the Gourriel family is the preeminent baseball dynasty. Lourdes Gourriel played baseball in Cuba for roughly 15 years in the late 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, winning multiple domestic awards with Sancti Spíritus and numerous international awards on the Cuban National Team. His brother Luis and his uncle Jose Delgado both played during that period as well. Lourdes's sons Yuniesky, Yulieski, and Lourdes Jr. all play ball, as well as Delgado's son, Yoannys. Of all the second-generation Gourriels, while youngster Lourdes Jr. may have the most potential, middle brother Yulieski has enjoyed the most success.

Background

Born June 9, 1984 in Sancti Spíritus, Yulieski Gourriel—who has since made it known that he prefers the spelling of his surname to be 'Gurriel'—was groomed to play baseball almost since birth. He made his Serie Nacional debut as a 17-year-old, the youngest player on the team and one of multiple members of a youth movement revitalizing the club. Playing alongside his uncle, Luis, and his older brother, Yuniesky, Yuliesky hit .300/.320/.462 in 376 plate appearances and helped lead Sancti Spíritus to a second-place finish in the 41st Serie Nacional de Beisbol, which took place in 2001-2002.

Over the next 10 years, the third baseman would become one of the preeminent offensive powers in Cuban baseball. Between the 42nd and 52nd Serie Nacional, the Cuban prodigy appeared in over 1,200 games and maintained roughly a .330/.415/.585 batting line. During that period of dominance, two years stand out for Gurriel. He was named MVP of the 44th and 45th Serie Nacional, one of only a handful of players in the history of Cuban baseball to win back-to-back MVP Awards. In 2004-2005, when he won his first award, the right-hander batted .341/.398/.608 with 23 home runs. In 2005-2006, when he won his second, he batted .291/.354/.451 with nine home runs.

Before the 53rd Serie Nacional began, the Cuban government changed many rules of the competition. As a result of the numerous changes that were instituted, the Gurriel brothers changed teams, moving from Sancti Spíritus to the Industriales in Havana. Despite the change in scenery, Yulieski Gurriel was the same old Yulieski Gurriel, hitting .313/.425/.566 in 81 combined games in the first and second phases of the competition. His 16 home runs led not only the Industriales but the entire league, while his 69 RBIs tied him for most that season.

Another one of the changes instituted in Cuban baseball loosened restrictions for players to play in professional leagues abroad, and Gurriel was one of a handful of top stars to be given the opportunity to do so. In May 2014, he signed with the Yokohama BayStars. Despite his massive success in Cuba, Yulieski was humble. He said:

"I know it's going to be a complicated challenge. It's the first time I'll play on a professional team, and I'll be doing it in Japan, which has the world's second-best baseball league. It's a huge challenge and I'm sure it's going to be very difficult at first, as I've never been in a similar situation before, much less in such a high-ranked league. They have an exquisite way of pitching, with a great variety of strategies that you don't see often in Cuba. I think it will take some time to adapt."

He made his NPB debut in early June, and while he did not necessarily struggle against Japanese pitching, he did struggle with inflammation in his left side that cost him almost two months during the dog days of summer. His first foray into Japanese baseball was a success other than that, as Gurriel hit .305/.349/.536 with 11 home runs in 62 games.

After the season ended in Japan, he returned home and quickly prepared for the 54th Serie Nacional. Perhaps showing some of the wear-and-tear of playing continuously without any real offseason, Gurriel had something of a down year, batting .343/.432/.577 with seven home runs. The 2014-2015 Industriales, as a whole, were flat for the competition, going 25-20 in the first phase, just barely making it into the second phase, where they went 21-21.

In early February 2015, the BayStars announced that they had not only signed his younger brother, Lourdes Jr., but that they had agreed to a one-year deal that would bring Yulieski back to Yokohama. His second season in Japan was simply not to be, as the third baseman never reported to camp. He had injured his hamstring during the 53rd Serie Nacional and did not want to leave the country while injured. Attempts by the BayStars to work something out failed when the two sides were unable to determine just when he would be healthy and ready to return to Japan, and Gurriel's contract was terminated as a result.

Having had the summer to rest, Yulieski returned to form in the 55th Serie Nacional. He had a mammoth season, hitting .500/.589/.874 in almost 225 plate appearances. His 15 home runs were tied for third most, and only two shy of league leader Yosvani Alarcon. Greatly aided by Gurriel's resurgent season, the Industriales went 30-15 in the first phase and 22-20 in the second phase, earning a playoff berth. They were swept by Ciego de Ávila, who eventually went on to win the competition, making it back-to-back championships for Los Tigres.

In addition to his success in domestic play, Gurriel has a long history of success in international play as well. A member of the Cuban National Team for upwards of a decade, the right-hander has various accolades to his name. Teams he has played on have won numerous competitions, from the Baseball World Cup to the Pan-Am Games. In 2004, he was on the gold-medal-winning team that played in the Olympic Games in Athens, and in 2008, he was on the silver-medal team that played in the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Gurriel played in all three World Baseball Classic tournaments. In the inaugural 2006 WBC, he hit .273/.342/.515 with two home runs in eight games, and was named to the 2006 World Baseball Classic All-Tournament Team at second base. In the 2009 WBC, he hit .333/.333/.625 with two home runs in six games, but was unable to do enough to get the Cuban National Team into the finals, the first time in 58 years that the team failed to make the finals in an international baseball event. In the 2013 WBC hit .280/.308/.480 with one home run in six games.

Yulieski Gurriel's final at-bat in the playoff series against Ciego de Ávila may have been his last one on Cuban soil. In February 2016, during the Caribbean World Series, Yulieski and his younger brother defected. The move sent shock waves throughout the baseball community. Peter Bjarkman, author and one of the foremost American authorities on Cuban baseball said, "I'm surprised to see it happen—the Gourriels have been so loyal." Ismael Sene, a television host and Cuban baseball historian said, "Yulieski is one of the most beloved we have here, from the people to the government. It's a sad day because it means our baseball is falling apart." As Ray Otero of the Havana Times put it, "Yulieski was Cuba's banner abroad, the player who didn't give in, not to the millions he was offered year after year."

The Cuban government issued a release in a state-run newspaper saying that the Gurriels displayed "an open attitude of surrender to merchants of professional baseball for profit," while Cuban National Team manager Roger Machado downplayed the loss in typical Cuban fashion, stating, "Never mind the absence of Yulieski, we have athletes who can do the job as well or better." For what it is worth, months before their departure, family head Lourdes Gourriel told Vice Sports during an interview in their Las Grandes Ligas documentary that he hoped his children would someday be able to play in the United States and that they would be able to go on and become wealthy and provide for their children better than he had for his.

Year Age G PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB K SB
2011-2012 (51st SNdB) 27 89 396 .324 .434 .586 22 61 34 14/18
2012-2013 (52nd SNdB) 28 79 333 .325 .423 .496 8 44 20 8/13
2013-2014 (53rd SNdB) 29 81 361 .313 .425 .566 16 54 31 10/18
2014-2015 (54th SNdB) 30 49 206 .343 .432 .577 7 27 18 11/13
2015-2016 (55 SNdB) 31 49 224 .500 .589 .874 15 38 3 3/3

According to Baseball America's Ben Badler, Yulieski Gurriel was the top position player and the best overall player in Cuba as recently as one year ago. He has a well-rounded skill set, with average-to-plus grades on his tools across the board. In his native Cuba, Gurriel was selected as an All-Star almost 10 times over the span of his career, and had he not played during a Cuban baseball renaissance, alongside names such as Alfredo Despaigne, Jose Abreu, Alexi Bell, and Frederich Cepeda, would have more than two MVP awards to his name.

Scouting report

Gurriel stands square at the plate, highly erect until the pitcher readies himself. He then opens his stance a bit more, crouching slightly and wrapping his bat so that the barrel is angled at the pitcher. He utilizes a leg kick in his swing, closing his stance as he lands on his front leg, planting it to generate additional torque. He possesses plus bat speed, and thanks to good hand-eye coordination and barrel control, makes hard contact. In addition to the technical aspects of his swing, Gurriel is simply a strong man, with plus power, and is able to muscle pitches for hits. Throughout his career in Cuba, the right-hander drew many walks, owing both to the respect pitchers showed his offensive potential and because of the keen eye that he has at the plate. He usually stays within the strike zone and rarely swings at pitches out of it.

For the majority of his career, Gurriel has been a third baseman, though he has spent time at various points playing second base, shortstop, and in the outfield. At this point in his career, the outfield no longer looks like a viable position. His best fit is at third base, where he is an above-average defender. Despite being 32-years-old, Gurriel is still athletic, agile, and has better reaction and first-step times off the bat at the hot corner than most. He has soft hands, possesses more than enough range, and has an above-average arm. He has played second base and even shortstop in short bursts over the course of his domestic career in Cuba and in international competitions, but may even have the physical tools to play the positions long term, especially second. When he first signed with the BayStars, team management informed him that he would primarily be playing at second base, but would be given the option of playing third, or even shortstop, trusting his ability to play at either middle infield position. While his range might be pressed at second, his strong arm and quick instincts would more than cover for it.

Family is very important for the Gourriels, and Yulieski is particularly close to his younger brother, Lourdes Jr. The two played together on the Sancti Spíritus team, played together on the Industriales, had planned on playing with his him with Japan, and defected together. The elder brother has said on record that he would prefer to have his younger brother nearby, indicating that signing one Gurriel would give an edge to signing the other, but he is also realistic and knows that such an arrangement might not be possible. "We would like to play together on the same team, have my brother near me," he told MLB's Jesse Sanchez. "But if the circumstances don't permit it and we have to go different paths, that's what we will do." While Dave Cameron of Fangraphs examined how the brothers could possibly package themselves together, it appears more likely that the two Cuban exiles sign with separate teams.

Even without factoring in whatever impact Lourdes Jr. will have on contract negotiations—if any—speculation on the kind of contract Yulieski Gurriel will receive is rife. Mark Polishuk of MLBTradeRumors did an excellent job weighing the many factors working in and against the favor of the 32-year-old Cuban exile, and how well a fit he might be for all 30 MLB teams.