Cuba was supposed to be in the baseball news this summer anyway. The island nation and baseball hotbed is scheduled to play host to three high-profile tournaments, starting with the FISU World University Championship, which begins Sunday.
The summer in Cuba also includes an Olympic qualifying tournament for the Western Hemisphere, with rosters full of professionals (minor leaguers), scheduled to begin Aug. 21, followed by the World Junior Championship Sept. 17-27.
And yet the stories garnering the most attention lately involving Cuba and baseball have revolved around Yuliesky Gourriel, considered the nation’s best young player, and the future of Cuba’s longtime dictator, Fidel Castro. Sorting out the facts in both cases has been difficult.
There is one sure thing: Gourriel is in Cuba and is not defecting. Various sources, including scouts and agents familiar with Cuba, have debunked the story that had shortstop Eduardo Paret and three other players defecting with Gourriel, while the national team was playing in a tournament in Colombia. Three of Cuba’s team handball athletes defected, but no baseball players.
Gourriel’s father Lourdes was also in South America, coaching Cuba’s college national team in series of games against Ecuador, and his younger sons Luis and Yuniesky were both on the team that will face Team USA and other nations in the upcoming World Championship event. One source said the prospect of defecting, however, holds no allure to the Gourriels, as long as Lourdes (a former star on Cuba’s national team himself) remains in favor with the ruling Communist Party, of which he is a member.
“That team was staying at an Army base, and the only way they were going to get (Yuliesky) Gourriel out is flying in there with a helicopter and taking him out,” one scout said.
Everything else about Cuba’s big baseball summer seems up in the air, starting with Castro’s health. The country’s leader since taking power in a 1959 revolution, Castro, 80, formally handed over power to his brother Raul, 75, over the weekend while he had surgery for what was described as a gastrointestinal illness. Speculation has run rampant that Castro might be dead already, and that a succession scrum already is taking place behind the scenes.
“This couldn’t be worse timing as far as all the baseball going down there is concerned,” said one international coach and scout familiar with Cuba. “It can’t be fun to be ready to go to Cuba for a tournament, and you could be down there when Castro actually dies? Who knows what will happen?”
USA Baseball’s college national team departed Thursday for Cuba and begins play Sunday against Taiwan, the first of four preliminary round games for coach Tim Corbin’s team, which is 20-3-2 on the summer. The medal round begins Saturday, Aug. 12. The Americans are led by two of Corbin’s Vanderbilt players, third baseman Pedro Alvarez (.381-5-29), the national Freshman of the Year, and lefthander David Price (3-1, 0.30, 47 strikeouts/five walks in 30 innings).
While Gourriel and Paret didn’t defect, Cuba did lose a player during its two teams’ trips to South America. Righthander Kenny Rodriguez defected in mid-July while playing in Ecuador, a surprise defection in that Ecuador has an excellent relationship with Cuba’s government. Rodriguez, whose age is reported as being either 20 or 22 (depending on the source), is believed to have fled to Peru.
Rodriguez pitched for Cuba’s junior national team in 2003 in Curacao and reportedly has reached the mid-90s with his fastball in the past. More recently, a source who saw him pitch in Ecuador reports the 6-foot-1, 170-pounder sat in the upper 80s, while another source said Rodriguez threw his fastball in the 89-91 mph range. He also throws a slider. Rodriguez has been a below-average pitcher in Cuba’s highest-level league, Serie Nacional, and was 6-4, 4.18 this season with 72 strikeouts in 75 innings. While one source likened him to a good college reliever who could be drafted in the first five rounds, another was less impressed with Rodriguez.
“He looked weak to me,” said one source who saw Rodriguez both in 2003 in Curacao and again in Ecuador last month. “His stuff was a lot livelier when he was in Curacao. He has a quick arm but he just didn’t look good at all in Ecuador.”
Four other Cuban defectors are attracting attention during workouts at major league academies in the Dominican Republic. The players include righthanders Sergui Linares and Yuslan Herrera, catcher Alexis Fonseca and infielder Yohannis Perez. Two scouts familiar with the players told Baseball America that Herrera was the most impressive of the quartet at a recent workout at the Diamondbacks academy in the Dominican, but that Linares and Perez have attracted the most attention of the group from scouts. Fonseca is not considered a significant prospect.
According to one source, Jaime Torres, the agent for White Sox ace and Cuban defector Jose Contreras, represents the quartet. Torres did not return a call seeking comment.
Perez, reportedly 23, has the most significant upside, as one scout said Perez once resembled Rickie Weeks due to his build, strong wrists and quick hands. He hit .271 with 10 home runs in more than 1,200 at-bats in his Serie Nacional career.
However, Perez hasn’t played in any kind of league in the last two years since his defection, and has put on weight, close to 30 pounds according to one scout. One said Perez was seeking a contract in excess of the $3 million major league deal the Mariners gave Yuniesky Betancourt in January 2005.
“He ran a 6.6 (seconds over 60 yards) down there but I’ve seen him run better than a 6.4,” said one international scout. “He’s shown outstanding tools and instincts in the past, good hands–he can play. But what is he now, when he hasn’t played for two years? He didn’t see any good pitches to hit in the simulated game they played, so it was hard to say anything about his hitting, plus they used Baum (wood composite) bats.
“All four of them ate some bad shrimp the night before, and Perez was throwing up during the game. It was just hard to tell what he is.”
Linares, 23, was affected by the food poisoning and didn’t pitch except for a side bullpen session. He has shown 97-98 mph velocity in the past, though his small stature (5-foot-10 or 5-foot-11) is of concern to scouts. He also has had poor results in his Serie Nacional career, going 7-10, 5.59 with nearly as many walks (86) as strikeouts (111) in 163 career innings.
Herrera, 25, has had success in Cuba, with a career 18-7, 3.72 record. He has shown command of a fringy fastball and an assortment of breaking balls, but one scout liked him a lot. “He’s got an above-average split-finger (fastball) and was 88-92,” the scout said. “I could see his velocity jumping up to 90-94 once he gets into a system and he could very easily be a No. 4 starter in the big leagues.”
Fonseca and Linares are believed to have defected to Florida in April 2004 and are believed to have U.S. residency, which would complicate their desire to become free agents. To do so, they would have had to gone through the draft process (as Cuban defectors such as Braves prospect Yunel Escobar did), then not get drafted. Herrera and Perez are reported to have last played in Cuba in 2003-2004.
Contributing: Chris Kline.