Cuban stars OK after defecting, talk about 'working toward our dream'
By Jesse Sanchez
Since their mysterious disappearance from the Cuban team last week, the Gurriel brothers have been training in secret, even as speculation mounted over their location and future in the game.
Yulieski Gurriel and his younger brother Lourdes Gurriel Jr. left the Cuban team at the conclusion of the Caribbean Series last week in the Dominican Republic, and until now had not been heard from publicly. Speculation from baseball insiders has placed the brothers in the Dominican, Haiti, or Panama. But the brothers have gone underground -- a common strategy used by players who defect from Cuba -- and no one knows for certain where they are.
Late Monday, the brothers surfaced for the first time to deliver a message. They would not disclose their location, but said they are working hard toward their Major League dream and hope to eventually sign with the same team.
"We want the fans to know we are fine and working toward our dream," Yulieski said in Spanish in an exclusive interview with MLB.com. "I know there are a lot of people who worried about us, but we are working hard and training every day to accomplish our dreams to play in the Major Leagues."
It's uncertain where the brothers will establish residency outside of the United States and Cuba, the first step to becoming free agents and eligible to sign with a Major League team. Miami's El Nuevo Herald reported that Yulieski, 31, established residency in Panama during his years traveling with the national team, thus making his path to free agency easier than for Lourdes, 22, who still needs to establish residency.
"We are ready to play," said Yulieski, who did not confirm the status of his Panamanian residency. "We hope it's this year. We want to play as soon as possible."
Yulieski Gurriel, one of Cuba's most celebrated and decorated players, is considered to be Major League-ready and could possibly make it to the Majors this season. The infielder was an Olympian in 2004 and has represented Cuba in 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.
Gurriel Jr., who plays shortstop and outfield, was hitting .321 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs and a .924 OPS in 43 games for the Havana Industriales this season. A good runner with a good glove, he could project to be a center fielder and can also play shortstop. Lourdes is comparable to Buddy Reed from the University of Florida, who is expected to be a top-15 pick in the upcoming MLB Draft, and while not as polished as his older brother, he has higher long-term upside and could ignite a bidding war.
"People can expect us to do the best we can every time we are on the field," Lourdes said. "To play baseball in the Major Leagues is our dream and with God's help, we will get there."
Yulieski projects to hit .285 with 15-18 home runs and 85 RBIs. He can play second base, third base and shortstop. He's a clutch gamer with some pop, a more fluid and athletic Jeff Kent type.
It could takes months for the Gurriels to get proper clearance to sign with a Major League club, with the All-Star break serving as a realistic estimate. Yulieski is in position as soon as he is eligibile to do so, but Lourdes' situation is a bit more complex.
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 Major League free agents once they are eligible to sign with a big league club. Cuban players who leave the island and go directly to the United States are subject to the signing guidelines of the MLB Draft.
Lourdes has played six seasons in Cuba and won't be 23 until October. He will not be subject to the guidelines if he signs after he turns 23, and therefore stands to have more leverage if he signs after his birthday because teams would not have to use money from their international bonus pool to sign him. There are a number of big-market teams who have exceeded their bonus pools by more than 15 percent in the past two years -- such as the Red Sox and Yankees -- which means they are banned from signing any international amateurs for more than $300,000 in the next two signing periods. In other words, those teams would have no shot at Lourdes if he signs before his birthday, but would not be restricted if he signs afterward.
Complicating things further is the brothers' desire to stay together.
"We would like to play together on the same team, have my brother near me," Yulieski said. "But if the circumstances don't permit it and we have to go different paths, that's what we will do."
The brothers -- whose surname had previously been spelled Gourriel before the family changed the spelling less than two years ago, according to Yulieski -- are the youngest members of the first family of baseball in Cuba.
Oldest brother Yunieski, 33, has played 16 seasons in Serie Nacional and the past two seasons for Quebec in the Canadian-American Association. Their father, Lourdes Sr., who spelled his name Gourriel, played for the national team for 15 years and won a gold medal, two batting titles and an MVP Award in Cuba. He was also a national team manager.
The brothers also had an uncle, great uncle and cousin who starred in Cuba.
"Our dream is to play in big leagues and it's been our desire for a long time," Yulieski said. "The world knew it. Now, we are taking these steps down the path to get there."
Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.