Will the Last Baseball Player to Leave Cuba Please Turn off the Lights
It was reported yesterday by mlbtraderumors.com that brothers Yulieski Gurriel and Lordes Gurriel have defected from the Cuban National Team while playing in the Dominican Republic. If true, this is another milestone, because the Gurriels had been regarded as firmly committed to remaining in Cuba unless the Cuban government allowed them to play in the U.S.
The older brother (actually, there are at least three brothers playing in Cuba’s Serie Nacional) Yulieski is generally regarded as the best remaining player in Cuba after all the defections the last few years. However, Lordes will get the much bigger contract from MLB, because he is ten years younger and just beginning to come into his own at age 22.
Yulieski played in Japan’s NPB in 2014, and he was good, compiling an .884 OPS in 62 games played. He didn’t return to Japan in 2014, because there was a conflict due to the overlapping Cuban and Japanese seasons. Yulieski, who was now over 30, wanted to be able to rest a couple of weeks after the Serie Nacional Season ended to heal his aches and pains, but the Yokohama Bay Stars didn’t want him joining the team the any deeper in the NPB season.
Yulieski will probably make the transition directly to the major leagues, depending on how long the lay-off is before he’s declared eligible to sign. If it’s long, he may need to get back up to speed in the minors for some period.
Lourdes probably will start his U.S. career at the AA level and then move up as fast as his performance dictates.
For what it’s worth, the oldest Gurriel (at least as far as I am aware — baseball reference has a page for a Luis Gurriel, also from Spiritu Sanctu, who may well be the oldest one) brother, Yunieski, played for Montreal in the Canadian American League during the summers of 2014 and 2015. He played on that team in 2015 with Alexei Bell, who didn’t defect from Cuba until January of this year.
The Cuban government has been allowing its top stars to play abroad, but not in the U.S., so that the players can earn a little money and reduce the chances they will defect in the future. While I doubt that either Yunieski Gurriel or Bell made more than about $3,000 a month playing in the Can-Am League, that’s more than they make playing in Cuba, although I doubt much money can be saved living on that salary in Montreal.
I kind of have to think that the Gurriel brothers may be as much motivated by the desire to play in the world’s best league against the world’s best players, as they are by the opportunity to finally cash in their baseball prowess. It’s also quite likely that the Cuban government is now turning a blind eye on ballplayer defections with an eye to the future — if the U.S. sanctions are removed in a few years and relations between the two countries normalized, the Cuban millionaires are likely to return to buy homes in Cuba and spend money and pay taxes there. Cuba’s economy could surely use those dollars.