MLB.com Columnist

Jesse Sanchez

Top Cuban prospect Gurriel Jr. dreams of MLB

22-year-old playing for home country in Caribbean Series

Top Cuban prospect Gurriel Jr. dreams of MLB

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Lourdes Gurriel Jr. can still recall the clothes he was wearing on the best day of his life: a white short-sleeved button-down shirt with a red stripe down the middle over the buttons, stylish black pants with rips across the knees and white high-top tennis shoes.

The aviator-style sunglasses were wiped clean, and the haircut was fresh. His big silver watch was polished.

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It's not every day a group of Major League Baseball stars visit Cuba's Estadio Latinoamericano on a goodwill trip from the United States, so Gurriel wanted to fit in with big leaguers, even if it was only for one day last December.

The 22-year-old is considered the top prospect still on the island and a rising star in Cuba's Serie Nacional, the country's top league. If he ever fulfills his dream to play in the Major Leagues, Gurriel knows it will be because of the ongoing shift in politics between Cuba and the United States off the field and the advice he received from Padres outfielder Jon Jay that day at Havana's most famous ballpark.

"It was the greatest experience of my life," said Gurriel Jr., a key member of the Ciego de Avila team representing Cuba at the Caribbean Series this week. "I had the pleasure of speaking with my hero Miguel Cabrera, Jon Jay, Brayan Pena, Alexei Ramirez and all of the guys. But it was Jon Jay who really told me about being a professional athlete. Hearing those words from a Major League player is something that will stay with me forever."

It was also Jay that introduced the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Gurriel Jr. to Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in the narrow hallway under the stadium behind home plate. Pena and Ramirez, who are also from Cuba and knew Gurriel Jr. as a child, were shocked to see how much he had grown when they were reunited in the home dugout a few minutes later.

Gurriel Jr. posed for countless photos with the Major Leaguers on the dugout bench. Then Jay pulled him to the side for a quick chat.

"Baseball is the universal language, and I talked to him about what helped me get to the Major Leagues and taking pride in doing the little things to win ball games. Things like treating people right and respecting the game," Jay said. "I stressed to get better at the little things, like defense and baserunning. I take a lot of pride in it, and it's what separates Major Leaguers."

MLB's goodwill tour to Cuba with Jay, Pena, Kershaw, Cabrera and Seattle's Nelson Cruz, with White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu and Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who are also from Cuba, featured a news conference at the historic Hotel Nacional, charity events and baseball clinics at Estadio Latinoamericano and at Estadio Victoria de Giron in Matanzas, not far from where Jay's family grew up.

"I can't believe I was able to make that trip," Jay said. "What if I had grown up there? I see everyone there, and I think I could be playing there. We could be teammates. It really touched me seeing the sacrifices my family made for us. And getting to see where my grandparents were born and raised is something I think about every single day. What an experience. I'm still in awe."

Part of the mission of the goodwill tour was to learn more about Cuba and bridge the gap between the two countries using baseball. The trip came with the U.S. and Cuba seeking to normalize relations and baseball searching for a safe way to get Cuban players in the Major Leagues as the backdrop.

MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association are currently exploring the idea of Spring Training games in Havana in March. The Rays were chosen in a lottery in November, giving them the opportunity, if a deal can be finalized, to play two exhibition games at Estadio Latinoamericano.

"I know they are fixing up the stadium right now so we can have more games in the future with MLB players," Gurriel Jr. said. "I hope I get to play. Just being here and seeing guys like Fernando Rodney and Jose Veras in the Caribbean Series is big, and I can't imagine playing against an entire team of Major League players. I think it will be a great experience for us, and really for me, I think I can use it to measure how far away I am from being that caliber of player."

The infielder has history on his side. The Gurriels are known as first family of Cuban baseball.

Lourdes Jr.'s older brother Yunieski Gurriel, 31, is considered the best player in Cuba. The infielder was an Olympian in 2004 and has represented Cuba at all three World Baseball Classic tournaments. He's been part of Cuban championship teams at the Pan American Games, Central American Games, World Baseball Championships, International Cup and Caribbean Series.

He's the starting third baseman for Ciego de Avila this week at the Caribbean Series.

Lourdes' oldest brother Yulieski, 33, is a star in his own right, having won two MVP Awards during his 16 years in Serie Nacional. In addition to his Cuban league play, Yulieski also spent the last two seasons playing for Quebec in the Canadian-American Association. Their father, Lourdes Gurriel Sr., played 15 years for the national team, won a gold medal, a pair of batting titles and an MVP Award in Cuba. He was also a national team manager.

Lourdes Jr. also has an uncle, great uncle and cousin that starred in Cuba.

"We've always played baseball, and I'm fortunate to be able to experience a lot of things in this game at this age," Lourdes Jr. said. "Everybody who plays baseball wants to be in the MLB. That's not a secret to anyone. That's the highest level, and maybe one day I can be there playing against the best every day."

There are big obstacles in his way, though.

The U.S. government began implementing a trade embargo in 1960 and broke off diplomatic ties with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961. Last June, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba will restore full diplomatic relations and open embassies in an effort to normalize relations.

However, defection -- either abandoning a national team during an international tournament or late-night escapes from Cuba to ports in Haiti or Mexico -- has traditionally been the only way for players to make it to the big leagues since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Because of the embargo, any defector who wants to do business with an American company must first establish residency outside Cuba and the U.S. Players must also petition for free agency from MLB before they can enter a contract with a Major League club.

Cuban players who are at least 23 years old and have played in a Cuban professional league for five or more seasons are exempt from the international signing guidelines established by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, effectively making them free agents once they are eligible to sign with a big league club. Cuban players who escape the island and go directly to the U.S. are subject to the signing guidelines of the MLB Draft.

Like his brother Yulieski, Lourdes Jr., who has played six professional seasons in Cuba, wants to leave Cuba legally and with the government's blessing.

"Things are changing. There's progress, and we are all watching," Lourdes Jr. said. "I want to leave with permission, too, and we are advancing that way, it seems. I think our dream is to both play in the Major Leagues. We'll see what the future between the two countries is."

Others are not as patient as the Gurriels. More than 100 Cuban players, including several All-Stars, have played in the Majors since the U.S. imposed sanctions in 1961. Approximately 125 prospects have left the island in the past 20 months seeking Major League contracts.

There are other options for players in Cuba, though. Some Cuban players are now allowed to play professionally in Mexico and Japan, with a percentage of their contracts paid to the government. Several played in Colombia this winter as part of the program. Yulieski spent 2014 with the Yokohama BayStars in the Japan Central League, but did not return for 2015. It's uncertain if he will go back.

"Japanese baseball is different than the baseball we play here," Yulieski said in Spanish. "There's a different culture and a different game, and you have to adapt quickly. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot."

Lourdes Jr. has expressed his desire to play in Japan. He's also trying to stay focused on his life and baseball in Cuba. He is hitting .321 with eight home runs, 32 RBIs and a .924 OPS in 43 games for the Havana Industriales this season.

"I'm having a great season and enjoying this experience here with my teammates and my brother," Lourdes Jr. said. "I think everybody gets flattered when you hear or see good things written about you and baseball people consider you somebody to watch. At the same time, it motivates me to get better. Be the best I can be and work on the little things like Jon Jay said."

Jesse Sanchez is reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.