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

Cesar Brioso

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

Patriarch Lourdes Gurriel Sr. was among Cuba's most decorated post-Revolution baseball players, a gold-medal winner with the Cuban National Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, six Baseball World Cups and multiple international tournaments throughout his career.

And son Yuli was Cuba's biggest star when in February 2016, he and his younger brother Lourdes Jr., abandoned Cuba's team in the Caribbean Series by sneaking across the border from the Dominican Republic into Haiti.

So, when the Houston Astros signed Yuli Gurriel five months later to a five-year $47.5 million dollar contract, he became the linchpin to the team's foray into the Cuban talent market.

"It started really with Yuli," Oz Ocampo, the Astros' international scouting crosschecker, told USA TODAY Sports in the closing weeks of the season. "And then Yuli was one of the greatest Cuban players of all time and he’s someone who’s respected, looked up to by Cuban players not only within the organization but really across all of baseball. That was a big step for us, bringing Yuli into the organization, and then it’s just gone from there."

EXODUS: Evolution of how baseball players leave Cuba for chance to play in MLB

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Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel (left) and left fielder Yordan Alvarez celebrate after Houston clinched the American League West on Sept. 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 slugger Yordan Álvarez, who was among a record 202 baseball players who left Cuba in 2015.

And the club's efforts haven't stopped since.

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

"One of the things we focused on as an international program was to be No. 1 or No. 2 in major markets, the big four, so the Dominican, Venezuela, Cuba and Mexico," Ocampo said. "And so, we put a big emphasis, a focus on evaluating and bringing Cuban talent to the organization. And we knew there are talented players from especially these big four markets, and we’ve spent the time and the resources to bring them to the organization. So, it was just an organizational effort from a scouting, evaluation perspective and also a dollars perspective to bring players in."

Days after Houston clinched the American League West on Sept. 19, the results of those efforts at the major league level were apparent at Camden Yards with Gurriel, Álvarez and Aledmys Díaz side-by-side at lockers arrayed along one wall in the visiting clubhouse.

The Astros' minor league pipeline includes Pedro León, Houston's No. 4-ranked prospect who played at Triple-A with the Sugar Land Space Cowboys of the Pacific Coast League this season.

The Cuban-born León, who in January 2021 signed for $4 million, the largest bonus in the 2020-21 international class, looked up to Gurriel even before he left Cuba in 2019.

"He's the hero for every Cuban player," León told the Houston Chronicle in April. "Everyone looks up to Yuli. Ever since I was little, I (liked) how he plays, like his style, and like everything about Yuli."

Gurriel and Álvarez have been key cogs in the Astros' recent success, which has included five consecutive postseason appearances and a World Series title in 2017.

Gurriel, who batted .299 with 18 home runs and 75 RBI during the championship season, hit 31 home runs with 104 RBI in 2019 and won the AL batting title (.319) last season. Álvarez, the 2019 AL rookie of year, hit 33 home runs with 104 RBI and was ALCS MVP in 2021. This season, he's hitting .301 with 37 homers and 96 RBI. 

And Díaz, who abandoned the Cuban National Team during a tournament in The Netherlands in 2012, is batting .247 with 12 home runs in 90 games this season. He has been a versatile addition, playing all over the infield and outfield since Houston acquired him in trade from the Toronto Blue Jays in 2018.

"The thing that’s stood out about all these guys is that all of them had not only — we talk about physical tools that the players have, what they have in terms of physical strength, their proven patterns and all that — but they also have performance and they have a playing history that was in tournament play, in the Cuban Serie Nacional," Ocampo said. "And so, they had both the combination of performance and skills that we could project that they could have an impact on the big club."

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

Ocampo credits Charlie González, the Astros' senior scouting adviser, who he said has been "instrumental" to the team's efforts with Cuban players.

González played a key role in the Astros landing Álvarez after he left Cuba for the Dominican Republic in 2015 and then established residency in Haiti.

González got an early look at Álvarez thanks to having a relationship with Álvarez's agent and sold Ocampo on the merits of pursuing him during the 2015-16 international signing period.

Although the Astros missed out on Álvarez then — he signed for $2 million with the Los Angeles Dodgers in June 2016 — Houston had its opportunity two months later, when it was in talks to ship reliever Josh Fields to L.A. González recommended to then-GM Jeff Luhnow that he ask the Dodgers for Álvarez in return.

Initially, then-Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi thought Luhnow wanted the team's prized Cuban pitching prospect Yadier Álvarez, who had signed for a $16 million bonus in July 2015.

When it became clear the Astros were asking for another Cuban Álvarez, the deal was struck.

"González has been instrumental in bringing these players and helping to identify them and bringing players to the organization," Ocampo said. "The biggest thing is having the relationships with people to be able to evaluate them and bring them to the organization."