Speaking after his Cuban team was eliminated from Caribbean Series play, third baseman Yuliesky Gourriel said he’s still hoping a path opens up that allows him to play in the U.S. someday.
MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez has the story.
“I’m happy for all the Cubans in the major leagues and we follow them even though we don’t have direct contact with them,” he said. “In Cuba, we play a good level of baseball, but when they leave the country, they seem to elevate their game. Maybe we don’t have best training conditions or equipment, but once they leave Cuba, they explode. Me, I’m just waiting on permission.”
Gourriel, who debuted in Cuba’s top league as an 17-year-old in 2002, has never attempted to defect. As Sanchez puts it, Gourriel’s parents “have close ties to the island’s communist party.” Six or eight years ago, he might have been a major league team’s No. 1 pick in an imaginary draft of Cuba’s top talent. He’s 29 and coming off one of his worst seasons, so he wouldn’t be quite so highly sought after now. Still, he’d almost certainly be a quality regular at third base in the majors.
Gourriel has his best season in Cuba in 2009, when he hit .399/.474/.710 with 22 homers in 328 at-bats. He helped Cuba bring home the gold in the 2004 Olympics, and he’s hit .293 with five homers in 82 at-bats in the three World Baseball Classics.
Spring training is tough for players under the best of circumstances. Even in an age when players work out all year, getting back into the swing of baseball-at-full-speed is tough. Many players spend the bulk of February and March knocking off the rust and getting their timing back. Because of this — and because the games have no real stakes — it is not wise to take spring training statistics super seriously. Especially if the player in question is assured of a spot on the roster and is trying to avoid injury before the regular season arrives.
Spring training for Shohei Ohtani is doubly difficult. Not only does he have to knock the rust off from the offseason, but he (a) has to get used to a new country and language; (b) has to get to know all new teammates, coaches and, really, an entirely new baseball culture; and (c) do all of that while dealing with a media crush that hasn’t been seen in baseball since Ichiro first arrived 17 years ago. In short, Ohtani is under massive pressure and has to make massive adjustments in a short time.
With that said, neither the Angels nor Ohtani can be all that pleased with how his spring training has gone. In two actual major league exhibition games he’s allowed eight runs in two and two-thirds innings. Seven of those came on Friday when he was shelled by the Rockies in an inning and a third. If you include B-games against minor leaguers, he has allowed 17 runs on 18 hits, four of which were homers, in four games. As a hitter he’s 2-for-20.
As Jeff Fletcher of the OC Register notes, Ohtani’s peripherals are not bad, as he has struck out a lot of guys and walked very few and the average on balls in play against him has been brutal, which is not super sustainable. Bad luck and some fat pitches at a time of the year when luck doesn’t really matter and the pitches, because of the rust, are likely to be fatter than normal.
As Fletcher also notes, Nolan Arenado, who faced Ohtani on Friday, said that his stuff looked good and that he’s going to be a good big league pitcher. Ohtani and Angels officials are all striking the right notes about bad luck and adjustments, saying that they’re not worried.
I imagine they’d be worrying even less if things had gone well this spring. Unless of course this is just a professional wrestling-style work aimed at getting more of us to watch his regular season debut, in which he’ll reveal that he was sandbaggin’ all along.