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Verducci: Houston Astros 2016 midseason preview
1:70 | MLB
Verducci: Houston Astros 2016 midseason preview
Sunday July 17th, 2016

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The Houston Astros signed 32-year-old Cuban defector Yulieski Gurriel to a five-year, $47.5 million contract on Saturday, bringing one of the biggest stars of 21st century international baseball into their organization just in time for the pennant races. There’s just one problem. They might not have anywhere to play him.

The Astros’ gamble on Gurriel, who defected from Cuba in February with his 22-year-old brother Lourdes Gurriel Jr., is a fascinating one for a variety of reasons. First there is Gurriel’s pedigree. The son of another Cuban baseball great, Lourdes Sr., Yulieski has been a star third baseman since he was a teenager, hitting .337/.421/.582 across 15 seasons in Cuba’s Serie Nacional. During that time, he was also a fixture on the Cuban National Team in international competition, playing on gold-medal-winning Cuban teams in the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2003 and 2007 Pan American Games, as well as several other notable international competitions, and hitting .293/.330/.537 with five home runs in 20 games in the 2006, 2009 and 2013 World Baseball Classics.

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On top of that, two years ago he was allowed to play for the Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars of Nippon Professional Baseball and hit .305/.349/.536 with 11 home runs in 62 games. Unlike many of the younger Cuban defectors who have signed with major league teams in recent years, Gurriel is a known quantity, an established star who has spent most of the current century on the international stage.

He is also a third baseman, which would seem to be in direct conflict with the Astros’ plans for the second overall pick in last year’s draft, 22-year-old former Louisiana State shortstop Alex Bregman. The Astros have shortstop covered at the major league level for the foreseeable future courtesy of 2012’s top overall pick and 2015’s American League Rookie of the Year, Carlos Correa. Their intention for Bregman, who reached Triple A at the end of June and hit .378/.417/.800 in his first 10 games at the minor league’s top level, was to move him to third base and call him up likely some time in August. Doing so would push Luis Valbuena, himself having a career-best year—.265/.359/.467, 122 OPS+—to first base, putting an above-average bat at a position where the Astros have received below-average production on the year (78 sOPS+, meaning a park-adjusted OPS 22 percent worse than league average for that position).

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With Jose Altuve having an MVP-quality season at second base, there wouldn’t appear to be an infield position remaining for Gurriel. However, in his press conference on Saturday, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow indicated that Gurriel would be on the Astros’ 25-man roster as soon as he was able to get a work visa and get his bat up to speed via, in Luhnow’s words, “a shortened version of spring training.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that Bregman will be blocked, however.

Luhnow mentioned Gurriel’s ability to play multiple positions several times on Saturday, describing him as a five-tool player who is “very good at all positions in the infield, and he can play the outfield.” It is unclear whether or not Gurriel actually played the 89 games in centerfield in 2005 that he is credited with on his Baseball-Reference page (he is credited with a similar workload at third base for that season despite having played just 89 games in total), but it seems clear that the Astros intend to use him as something like an everyday super-utility player, and could very well make similar use of Bregman. Luhnow appeared to support that idea saying, “what I want to do is to put as many good players out on the field as possible and let [manager] A.J. [Hinch] and the players sort out where they play every night,” adding, “we’ll make it work.” Hinch similarly praised Gurriel’s versatility in an interview with ROOT Sports before Saturday’s game.

Exactly how those pieces fit together remains to be seen, but first base, designated hitter and centerfield have been underperforming positions for the Astros this season (sOPS+ of 78, 56 and 60, respectively). Adding Gurriel and Bregman offers the possibility of filling two of those three holes in the lineup on a regular basis, most likely with one of them, not necessarily the same one every night, taking third and the other sharing first base and designated hitter with Valbuena. That said, if either proves viable in the outfield, and the Astros did work Gurriel out in the outfield before signing him, Houston could make use of that player in leftfield with Colby Rasmus shifting over to center. Whatever the alignment, it likely means less Evan Gattis, A.J. Reed and Marwin Gonzalez, and possibly even less Carlos Gomez and Jake Marisnick in the Astros lineup down the stretch. Given that those five players have hit a combined .221/.270/.367 on the season, the bar for success will not be set very high for Gurriel or Bregman, both of whom are capable of being impact players in the pennant race.

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As for the contract, it is by far the largest of any current Astros player and will take Gurriel through his age 36 season, but it also has an average annual value below $10 million (the payout schedule has not yet been made public). So, it is a large gamble within the context of the Astros’ roster, but it is not a contract that will rob Luhnow of any flexibility going forward. If anything, it is a gamble that was made possible Luhnow’s ability to build a budget-price contender around homegrown stars such as Altuve, Correa and George Springer, who are making a combined $4.54 million this season.

The Astros may have gotten off to a slow start this season, but since May 24 they have been the best team in baseball, going 32–14 (.696) with an MLB-leading +66 run differential. Now they have added arguably the game’s top international talent and intend to have him and one of the game’s top prospects (again) in their lineup in a matter of weeks. As confusing as the Gurriel addition may be on its face, I’m going to trust that the Astros know what they’re doing.

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