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‘It started really with Yuli’: Gurriel, Yordan Álvarez the linchpins to Astros’ Cuban connection

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BALTIMORE. The Gurriel surname carries weight in baseball circles from Havana to Houston and beyond.

Patriarch Lourdes Gurriel Sr. was one of the most decorated post-revolutionary Cuban baseball players, having won a gold medal with the Cuban national team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, six baseball world championships and numerous international tournaments throughout his career.

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And son Julius was Cuba’s biggest star when, in February 2016, he and his younger brother Lourdes Jr left the Cuban team in the Caribbean Series, sneaking across the border from the Dominican Republic to Haiti.

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So, when the Houston Astros signed Julius Gurriel to a five-year, $47.5 million contract five months later, he became the team’s mainstay on its path to the Cuban talent market.

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“It really started with Yuli,” Oz Ocampo, Astros international scouting cross-controller, told USA TODAY Sports in the final weeks of the season. “And then Yuli was one of the greatest Cuban players of all time, and he was respected, looked up to by Cuban players, not only within the organization, but throughout baseball. It was a big step for us, bringing Yulia into the organization, and then she just left.”

EXODUS: The evolution of how baseball players leave Cuba for a chance to play in MLB

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Astros first baseman Julius Gurriel (left) and left fielder Jordan Alvarez celebrate Houston's American League Western win on September 19, 2022 at Tropicana Field.
Astros first baseman Julius Gurriel (left) and left fielder Jordan Alvarez celebrate Houston’s American League Western win on September 19, 2022 at Tropicana Field.

According to the Houston Chronicle, from 2015 to 2016, the Astros acquired or signed nine Cuban-born players.including Gurriel and batter Jordan Alvarez, who was among a record 202 baseball players to leave Cuba in 2015.

And since then, the efforts of the club have not stopped.

Astros this season the first MLB team since the 1960s to have at least 21 Cuban-born players. throughout the organization, according to Frances Romero, an author and member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, which tracks major league teams’ signings of Cuba. The next closest teams, according to Romero, had 11 each: the San Diego Padres and the Chicago White Sox, whose organization includes major league players Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert and Yasmani Grandal.

“One of the things we focused on as an international program was to be #1 or #2 in the major markets, the big four, which is Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba and Mexico,” Ocampo said. “So, we place a lot of emphasis on appraising and attracting Cuban talent to the organization. And we knew there were talented players out there, especially from those big four markets, and we put in the time and resources to bring them in. So it was just an organizing effort in terms of scouting, valuation, and also in terms of dollars, to attract players.”

Days after Houston won the American League West on September 19, the results of that effort at the major league level were evident at Camden Yards, where Gurriel, Alvarez and Aledmis Diaz stood side by side against lockers lined one wall in the clubhouse. for guests. .

The Astros’ minor league roster includes Pedro Leon, a Houston prospect who played Triple-A with the Pacific League’s Sugar Land Space Cowboys this season.

Cuban-born León, who in January 2021 signed with $4 million, the biggest prize in the 2020-2021 international class, had his eye on Gurriel even before he left Cuba in 2019.

“He’s a hero to every Cuban player,” Leon told the Houston Chronicle in April. “Everyone is looking at Julia. Ever since I was little, I (liked) how he plays, how his style and how everything about Yuli.

Gurriel and Alvarez were key cogs in the Astros’ recent success, which included five straight games in the postseason and World Series title in 2017.

Gurriel, who batted .299 with 18 home runs and 75 RBIs during the championship season, hit 31 home runs with 104 RBIs in 2019 and won the AL batting title (.319) last season. Alvarez, AL Rookie of the Year 2019hit 33 home runs with 104 RBIs and was ALCS Most Valuable Player in 2021. He’s hitting .301 this season with 37 homers and 96 RBIs.

And Diaz, who left the Cuban national team during the 2012 Netherlands tournament, hit .247 this season with 12 home runs in 90 games. He has been a versatile addition, playing in the infield and outfield since Houston acquired him in a trade to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2018.

“What stands out about all these guys is that they all have not only – we are talking about the physical tools that the players have, what they have in terms of physical strength, their proven models and all that – but they also have productivity. and they have a playing history that has been in tournaments, in the Cuban Nacional series,” Ocampo said. “So they had a mix of performance and skills that we could engineer to make an impact on a big club.”

Houston Astros second baseman Aledmis Diaz (16) celebrates in the dugout after a home run against the Oakland Athletics at Minute Maid Park on September 15, 2022.
Houston Astros second baseman Aledmis Diaz (16) celebrates in the dugout after a home run against the Oakland Athletics at Minute Maid Park on September 15, 2022.

Ocampo credits Charlie Gonzalez, the Astros’ senior scouting adviser, who he says has played an “important role” in the team’s work with the Cuban players.

Gonzalez played a key role in landing Alvarez on the Astros after he left Cuba for the Dominican Republic in 2015 and then settled in Haiti.

González saw Alvarez early through a relationship with Alvarez’s agent and sold Ocampo for pursuing him during the 2015–2016 international signing period.

Although the Astros missed out on Alvarez at the time — he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $2 million in June 2016 — Houston got the opportunity two months later when they were in talks to send pitcher Josh Fields to Los Angeles. recommended by Gonzalez to then-CEO Jeff. Lyukhnov that he is asking the Dodgers to replace Alvarez.

Initially, then-Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi thought Lukhnov wanted valuable Cuban prospect Yadyer Alvarez, who signed for a $16 million bonus in July 2015.

When it became clear that the Astros were asking another Cuban Alvarez, the deal is done.

“Gonzalez has been instrumental in recruiting these players and helping to identify them and bring players into the organization,” Ocampo said. “The most important thing is to have a relationship with people in order to be able to evaluate them and attract them to the organization.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jordan Alvarez and Julius Gurriel are the backbones of the Astros’ Cuban connections.


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