The Astros’ litany of “needs” this offseason has consisted of the following.
- Must-haves. Replacements for Michael Brantley and George Springer in the outfield (somehow replacing Josh Reddick never gets mentioned) and either a better starting catcher in front of or more likely a veteran backup catcher behind Martin Maldonado.
- Nice to haves. A veteran or two relief pitchers added to the mix including a high end closer and a veteran or two of starting pitcher depth behind Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy.
But one potential need has really not been discussed and that is a replacement for 1B Yuli Gurriel.
There are a number of valid arguments for why the replacement of Gurriel is not a potential need:
- Gurriel’s 2020 season was bad (.232 BA/ .274 OBP/ .658 OPS), but Jose Altuve‘s 2020 season was worse (.219 BA/ .286 OBP/ .629 OPS) and no one seems to be fretting about replacing him.
- Gurriel is one year removed from his finest season in 2019, (.298 BA/ .343 OBP/ .884 OPS/ 31 HRs/ 104 RBIs).
- The Astros are so confident in Gurriel that they signed him for two seasons (well actually one guaranteed with a team option on the second that includes a $500 K buyout) for between $14.5 MM to 18.5 MM depending on bonuses, so they must think he is ready to bounce back.
- His BAbip (batting average for balls in play) last season was an unbelievably unlucky .235 for someone who had a career .298 BAbip heading into 2020. Also, his strikeout rate continued at an excellent 11.7% rate in 2020, only slightly higher than his 10.7% career rate headed into the season.
- We should consider the start, stop, start again 2020 season a candidate for a mulligan. We do not know what was going on with the players in their personal lives last season, how many family members had gotten COVID or even died and the effect the enforced isolation had on them. We don’t know how this affected their training regimen and their fitness for the season.
On the other side of the coin, there are reasons for concern about Gurriel and a 1B being a potential need:
- Yes, Altuve was worse than Gurriel in 2020, but two things stand in his favor. One, Altuve turned it around with a brilliant performance in the postseason, including 11 runs, 5 HRs and 10 RBIs in the 11 games against the A’s and the Rays. Yuli had five measly singles in 44 postseason ABs in 2020. Two, Altuve will turn only 31 in May…..
- Which brings us to the biggest number to doubt Yuli and that is 37, the age he will turn in June. It can be argued that Yuli has less wear and tear on his body than the normal 37 year old athlete since the Cuban baseball seasons ran about 80 -90 games. Still, when he stepped on the field as a 32-year-old rookie in 2016 for the Astros he had 15 seasons of professional ball under his belt. Father time waits for no one and we need to look no farther than the two biggest icons of the team, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, to see how play, skills and health decline in a baseball player in his later 30’s.
- If the Astros were really sure about Gurriel they would not have committed only $7 MM ($6.5 MM in base salary and a $.5 MM buyout) to him. That is not nothing but is not a big commitment these days.
The overriding argument of giving the whole team, or at least those who regressed, a giant do-over in 2021 makes sense. But what if Yuli is as ineffective in 2021 as he was in 2020? It is one thing to have a defensive-oriented catcher (Maldonado) or even centerfielder (Myles Straw), but the corner infield spot is supposed to be a position of power and production. Can the Astros survive long with a hole in the lineup where there traditionally shouldn’t be one?
It is weird to think that fans thought Yuli was brought in to be our 3B, when he was signed for 5 years/ $47.5 MM out of Cuba. But his 2016 arrival also coincided with the arrival of Alex Bregman to the majors and the scramble around that reminded us all of what happened when 3B prospect Jeff Bagwell arrived in Houston and was immediately handed a 1B glove. In 2016, the first base spot was a hodgepodge as Marwin Gonzalez started 74 games there, Tyler White 50 games, A.J. Reed 27 games, the late (so sad) Luis Valbuena 7 games and Gurriel only 4 games. He actually started 20 games at third base, but rookie Bregman got 40 starts at the hot corner and never gave it back going forward. In 2017, the Astros handed the first base spot to Gurriel and he has not looked back since.
So, what happens if Yuli continues the slump that killed his 2020 season? Aledmys Diaz has played at 1B some, but he has missed so much time the last couple seasons, he could not be counted on as the new 1B. Kyle Tucker was handed a 1B glove last spring training, but with the holes in the Astros new outfield, he will not be anywhere but in the far fields. Yordan Alvarez looks like a 1B, and has played some 1B throughout his Cuban and minor league career, but with his knee problems and rehab he will probably not be moving out of the DH spot too much in the coming season. Taylor Jones would seem to be the most immediate prospect to fill the 1B spot. He did not have too auspicious an MLB debut last season but was only given 21 ABs, so any judgment would be a bit early on him. He had been a solid hitter the previous two seasons in the minors and would seem to be the next man up. Of course, the Astros could go chase some 1B help via the trade route during the season, though unless there is a bargain to pick up that does not seem very likely.
So, where do you stand on this topic? Is Dan P being like your mom and worrying about something not worth worrying about or is this a true concern? How would you address it?