Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Yulieski Gourriel Watch

The World Baseball Classic turned us all on to a number of new faces on the international scene. Aside from my personal favorite, Daisuke Matsuzaka, there is one other player at the top of the scouting wish list. That player is 22 year old Yulieski Gourriel, infielder for the Cuban National Team and the Sancti Spiritus club of the Cuban professional league.

The WBC interrupted an intense 45th National Season in Cuba, and gave us a brief glimpse at the many Major League caliber talents hidden in obscurity behind Castro's communist curtain. The league is hardly a secret and the history of the island's organized baseball clubs is long and storied. Current action can be followed with minimal effort on the internet, but some Spanish language proficiency is required. Living in Japan, my Spanish is a bit rusty, but the league gives me the opportunity to stay fresh and take steps to keep my intermediate level knowledge of the language.

My eyes are on young Gourriel to see how far his talent will take him. Somehow, I believe it will be impossible for him to play in the Major Leagues, as he will be guarded as a national treasure. Some notable players have defected successfully, but the prospect of a stud like Gourriel leaving Cuba are almost nil. We also need to take care to respect the notion that many of the Cuban stars don't care about playing in the majors. The pride that exists in being a pro in Cuba is immense, and the life players lead is generally well above the status of everyday citizens. A legend is a legend after all, regardless of the paycheck.

One of the key factors in Gourriel's attachment to Cuba is his family. Both his brothers are players, and his father Lourdes is a certified hero on his own. As a first baseman for the national team, the senior Gourriel had a number of huge moments on the international stage. In 1988 his hitting contributed to a World Cup victory over the United States. He taught his sons everything he knew about playing "beisbol" and each has blossomed into a fine player. Lourdes Gourriel now coaches his sons for the Sancti Spiritus club. Yulieski, the middle son, has surpassed the expectations of everyone, and is drawing comparisons to a young Alex Rodriguez in some scouting circles.

What has he done lately?

Sancti Spiritus currently sits 2 games in back of Industriales in Group B of the Cuban Professional League. They boast the 3rd best overall record of the 16 teams, and are on a serious tear. Led by the bats of Gourriel and fellow WBC hero Frederich Cepeda, the team has won 20 consecutive games. That streak ties them with the Habana club of the 10th National Season (35 years ago) for the 2nd longest streak in the nation's history. Here are Gourriel's numbers after 79 games:

The current MVP race in Cuba features several players from the WBC team, and talk is that Gourriel is the current leader. He is first in home runs, two ahead of Joan Carlos Pedroso. Only Yohenis Cespedes (79) and Michel Enriquez (77) lead Gourriel in runs scored. Orlis Luis Diaz paces the league in RBIs(82), but the Spirituano third baseman is closing the gap during the furious streak he's on and stands in second. Likewise, Gourriel is 4th in stolen bases and 3rd in batting average.

We'll keep an eye on the remainder of the season for you. Check back for more.