Caribbean Wind Blows At Trade Deadline
"They play with one objective, we play with another. They play rental baseball. We play for the love of the jersey, for the love of where we come from."
With the non-waiver trade deadline looming, baseball's playoff contenders are scrambling after the same players: Soriano and Tejada top the list of batters, while others seek to dip into the pool of aging pitching talent that includes Maddux, Lieber and Livan Hernandez.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Cartegena there roams every General Manager's dream. He's faster than a Soriano and has more pop than a Tejada, he's proven he can take on big-league pitching under playoff pressure, and best of all he's only 22 and you don't need to trade a prospect to get him. But you better move fast before Steinbrenner's hired goons arrive with their briefcases full of cash.
This mysterious figure is none other than Yulieski Gourriel. Unconfirmed reports from the Bogota Times say that he is one of five players to have left the team during a visit to Colombia, hoping to emigrate to the United States.
Until days ago, Gourriel was the brightest star of Los Gallos de Sancti Spíritus in the Cuban National League.
The SSP won the Group B division this spring, then lost during the semi-final. But the third-baseman shone. Batting third, he went 11-for-23 (.478) in the six game series, with 6 runs and 3 RBIs.
Over the 2005-06 season (90 games), Gourriel led the Cuban League in homeruns (27), triples (11), runs (89) and RBIs (92). His homeruns were one shy of the league record.
The season was, of course, interrupted for the World Baseball Classic. And Gourriel did not disappoint. Over eight games, Gourriel batted .273/.342/.515 with 2 HR, 8 R and 6 RBI. Author Peter Bjarkman's assessment was straightforward: "I think he is their best all-around player."
Still just 22, Gourriel is no stranger to the high-stakes competition: at 17 he helped Cuba to the gold medal at the 2001 Pan-American games; at 20 it was gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and he participated in two other gold-medal performances at the 2003 and 2005 Baseball World Cup. It was his triple that averted disaster in the 2003 final, beginning a rally that would push Cuba ahead of the Brazilian side, and his 8 homeruns and 19 RBIs (in nine games) led the 2005 event.
Prior to the WBC, John Manuel canvassed the scouts and found a concensus: "For me, he’s a No. 1 guy, and he’s a power hitter who fits the third base profile. I think he’s a championship-caliber third baseman in the big leagues. He doesn’t have a weakness," said one. White Sox scout John Kazanas was equally enthused, albeit in a Yogi-esque fashion: "He’s got such quick wrists, it’s like a knife through butter, and there’s no butter on the knife."
While scouts and managers have salivated at the prospect of Gourriel immigrating, the odds were deemed low. The SSP are managed by his father, Lourdes, and his brother plays outfield for the team.
Family ties notwithstanding, rental baseball (Gourriel's words) looks to have won the day. Team-mate Kendry Morales signed with the Angels for a six-year $6 million contract in December 2004. Ranked 26th on Baseball Prospectus's list of 2006 prospects, the 23-year-old first baseman found immediate success in Arkansas, California and the Arizona Fall league, and recently finished a 183 at-bat stint in the bigs.
Perhaps Morales's success -- both financial and professional -- was the inspiration for Gourriel's move. But what matters more than the reasons are the results, and it looks like we're in for a treat.
UPDATE, SUNDAY: So much for the excitement. La Prensa carries a report that Gourriel has denied the rumoured departure from Cuba, and a statement has also been issued by Cuba's Instituto de Deportes y Educación Física.
It also indicates the Gourriel slugged a homerun in the final against Dominica, helping Cuba win another gold from the regional tournament. His mind, we are told, was on his homeland. "Pensé en mi Patria, en los miles de cubanos que esperaban una buena jugada o un excelente batazo," he said. "Cuando uno juega para Cuba hay que dar el máximo esfuerzo."
["I thought about my mother country, and the thousands of Cuban who waited for a good play or an excellent at-bat. When one plays for Cuba it's necessary to give the maximum effort."] Or as we say here, 110%.