• See Also: Top 20 Prospects In Cuba: 11-20
The Cuban market has changed substantially over the last few years. So has the way we cover Cuban players, who are leaving the island at a rapid pace with no signs of it slowing down.
There’s no reason to wait until these players leave Cuba to evaluate them. Some of the players who have left are major league all-stars, others are high-upside prospects, but most are organizational filler, at best. Our goal is that, as players continue to leave Cuba, you will have legitimate information and thorough reports on who the top players are and how they stack up against each other. Whether you want to add Victor Mesa to your dynasty league team—yes, I get those messages—is up to you.
The reports are based on conversations with scouts who have seen these players at international tournaments, watching those international competitions myself, watching more than 100 Cuban games over the past season and conversations with other sources who have seen players in Cuba.
In Cuba, the regular season ended in late March. So for our rankings, any player who was still in Cuba as of our April 1 cutoff is included on this list, which is why it includes righthander Yaisel Sierra and outfielder Yusnier Diaz, but not righthander Vladimir Gutierrez. Had Gutierrez been eligible for this list, he would have ranked No. 9.
The first four players on this list separated themselves as the top talent in the country. After that, it’s a combination of young, high-upside players who would mostly still be minor league prospects if they were in the United States, along with a handful of older players who are major league ready now but have less impact potential.
We also have a five-point certainty scale for every player, not just because I believe transparency is important but because the degree of certainty it’s a key part of any evaluation and plays an important role in the unique world of Cuban player evaluation. While uncertainty and risk are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings to me. A 19-year-old outfielder, like Julio Pablo Martinez, is going to be a high-risk player, because that’s the nature of projecting 19-year-olds. But we also have a high level of certainty about his current tools, skill set and overall talent level, having seen around 100 plate appearances of him in the last seven months. The future projection could end up being wrong—that’s how forecasts go sometimes—but there’s a very high level of information we have on Martinez right now to formulate a report. For other players, they might not have had as much exposure, so we’re going to tell you exactly what level of certainty we have in each player’s report.
For every player, we’re going to tell you and we’re going to tell you for every player
Here’s a guideline to that certainty scale:
5. Very High
We have extensive history on these players, usually over multiple international tournaments and having seen at least 100 plate appearances or so within the last year for position players. National team stars like Yulieski Gourriel and Alfredo Despaigne fall into this category, and players like Jose Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes would have as well.
These reports are players we know well, but might have a little less data on than a Very High player, for various reasons. Vladimir Garcia, who previously would have been a Very High due to his exposure at international tournaments over several years and views in Cuba, suffered an injury that limited his playing time in Cuba this past season and clouds his status, so I dropped him one level. Same with Jose Fernandez, who I know extremely well but hasn’t played since October, so I had to drop him into this level too.
These are players I have a strong feel for, but would like to have a longer track record before bumping them up a grade, or, who I might have seen a lot at the plate but not much in the field. I try to be cautious in guarding against my own overconfidence, so while I’ve seen Hector Mendoza pitch seven times since last month and 12 times since November, it’s only been in a relief role, so I put him in this category. Reds righthander Raisel Iglesias and Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo (who was suspended before he left Cuba) would have fit into this category before they left Cuba.
These are mostly going to be young players who have been seen but have had limited exposure, either at international tournaments or in Serie Nacional. There are two players on this list who played in Mexico on the junior national team in September and who I saw take a handful of scattered plate appearances in Serie Nacional this past season, but nowhere near as much as the players with higher certainty scores. Yasiel Puig before he left Cuba would have fit into this level.
1. Very Low
There aren’t any players on this year’s list who fit into this category, which is partly a reflection of the commitment we’ve made to blanketing our Cuban coverage. This category would be for a player who I’ve never or rarely seen, likely someone in the Cuban junior leagues who has never played outside of Cuba, or a Serie Nacional player who doesn’t get much exposure. Yadier Alvarez, who never pitched in Serie Nacional or pitched outside of Cuba, would have fit into this category.
1. Yulieski Gourriel, 3b, Industriales
Age: 30. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 196.
Certainty Level: Category 5 (Very High).
Gourriel has been a star in Cuba for more than a decade. He debuted in Serie Nacional as a 17-year-old and winning MVP awards at age 20 and 21 in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. A veteran of the Cuban national team, Gourriel ranked as the No. 1 player in Cuba entering the 2014-15 season in August and retains that top spot thanks to a well-rounded skill set. After a strong summer with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, Gourriel took time off early in the Serie Nacional season when he returned to Cuba. When he was back on the field, he was still one of the most productive players in Serie Nacional.
Gourriel has all the attributes to be an above-average offensive player. He has plus bat speed and squares up all types of pitches with good hand-eye coordination and barrel control. He wraps his barrel behind his head, angling the bat toward the pitcher, but he gets the barrel into the hitting zone quickly and has good plate coverage. He stays within the strike zone and uses the whole field, and with plus raw power on the 20-80 scale, he offers a balance of being able to hit for average, get on base and hit for power.
When Gourriel plays for his Industriales team in Cuba, he’s a third baseman, which is the position he’s held on the Cuban national team for several years. However, at his last two international tournaments—the Central American and Caribbean Games in November and the Caribbean Series in February—he’s played second base, a position he has history playing earlier in his career. His best fit is at third base, where he is an above-average defender. He’s athletic, agile and has quick reactions off the bat. He draws some criticism from scouts for mental lapses, but he has good hands and range for the position, along with a 70 arm. A fringe-average runner, Gourriel’s range is better suited for third base than second, though his instincts, high baseball IQ and body control help and would make him playable there if a major league team wanted to use him at second.
They have different body types, but Gourriel would have similar value to Hanley Ramirez and David Wright in terms of age and offensive performance if he were to leave Cuba to pursue a major league contract. Gourriel had a contract to return to Japan to play for Yokohama this season, but that’s not happening any more, as the BayStars terminated his contract over a strange dispute when Gourriel didn’t report to camp two weeks after his Serie Nacional season, reportedly to nurse a right hamstring injury.