The Runner Sports

Astros Sign Cuban IF Yulieski Gurriel – Now What?

Getting a jump on the August 1st trade deadline, the Houston Astros have signed highly coveted Cuban infielder Yulieski Gurriel. The team held a press conference Saturday, July 16, to announce the signing.

Declared a free agent last month by MLB, the 32-year-old Gurriel defected from his homeland, Cuba, in February. The Giants, Padres, Marlins, Dodgers, and the two New York teams expressed interest in him (and held private workouts), but in swooped the Astros with a 5-year, $47.5 million deal.

Gurriel worked out for the Astros June 29 in Florida, and later posted a photo of himself, on Instagram, wearing an Astros cap. A self-professed Yankee fan, he must’ve seen something in the Houston organization that he liked.

Yulieski’s 22-year-old brother, Lourdes, Jr., reportedly changed the spelling of the family name from “Gourriel” to “Gurriel” about two years ago, according to MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez.

It is hoped, by Astro brass, that Lourdes, Jr., himself a highly-regarded prospect, will be eager to follow his big brother to the Bayou City when his international bonus pool rules run out in October.

The New Model YuGo

According to Sports Illustrated, Yulieski hails from what’s known as “the first family” of Cuban baseball. Their father, Lourdes Gourriel Sr., starred in Cuba’s Serie Nacional from 1976 to ’95, earning a Rookie of the Year award, two batting titles, and numerous gold medals in international play, including an Olympic gold medal in Barcelona in ’92. He has since gone on to manage in Cuba.

Older brother Yunieski Gourriel, meanwhile, was a star center fielder, and an uncle, a cousin, and a nephew have also played there.

Yulieski debuted in Serie Nacional during the 2001-02 season, when he was just 17, and spent the first 12 seasons of his career starring for Gallos de Sancti Spiritus before moving on to Industriales de La Habana for the ’13-14 season.

In his 15 Serie Nacional seasons, he’s hit a combined .337/.421/.582 with 239 homers and 118 stolen bases in 5,233 plate appearances, playing primarily at third base but also second and even center field.

The Cuban government allowed him to play in Japan in 2014, after the conclusion of Industriales’ season. In 62 games with the Yokohama Bay Stars of the Japanese Central League, he hit .305/.349/.536 with 11 homers.

While free to return for 2015, he did not, due to a right hamstring injury. Gurriel hit .500/.589/.874 with 15 home runs, 20 doubles, and 51 RBIs in 49 games (224 plate appearances) for the Industriales in 2015.

On the Field

Projected as either a third baseman or second baseman in the majors, Yulieski had been training in South Florida with his younger brother, Lourdes, who also defected in February.

Gurriel projects to hit .285 with 15-18 home runs and 85 RBIs. He has been described by some scouts as a more fluid and athletic Jeff Kent (himself a former Astro). 

Last year, Baseball America’s Ben Badler turned in this evaluation: “Gourriel has all the attributes to be an above-average offensive player. He has plus bat speed and squares up all types of pitches with good hand-eye coordination and barrel control.

“He wraps his barrel behind his head, angling the bat toward the pitcher, but he gets the barrel into the hitting zone quickly and has good plate coverage. He stays within the strike zone and uses the whole field, and with plus raw power on the 20-80 scale, he offers a balance of being able to hit for average, get on base and hit for power.”

Video: Watch Gurriel Interview (in Spanish), with game footage

When?

Yulieski will be given a chance to tune up a bit by reporting to the team’s Florida spring training complex, while waiting on his work visa. Then, actual game play at the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League (GCL) Astros will be in order (by end of July) before making his Houston debut by mid-August.

Third baseman, Matt Duffy (hitting .226 at AAA Fresno), was designated for assignment, Saturday (and picked up by the Rangers later in the week), which clears a spot on the 40-man roster for Gurriel.

Where?

Needless to say, Gurriel will not be playing the Jose Altuve-rooted 2B spot. If you put him at third, Luis Valbuena would move to first, and an A.J. Reed/Evan Gattis DH platoon would ensue. Gurriel could also play the outfield, and the new abundance of bats will also provide a DH merry-go-round, although Gurriel and Bregman will dominate that field-less position. All aboard!

“I don’t have a favorite position and I have no trouble moving around,” Gurriel said, at Saturday’s presser, through a translator.

Related: A.J. Reed Called Up

Then, what of Alex Bregman (about whom much has been written in this space)? Currently in New Orleans playing a weekend series with his Fresno Grizzlies AAA team, he was rumored to be called up at any minute…and still might be.

Related: The Persistence of Alex Bregman

Trade? Who?

The possible trade of Bregman now that Gurriel has been signed has been mentioned on Friday’s Houston-based sports talk shows (namely SportsTalk 790). Reportedly, a source close to the Astros (maybe even GM Jeff Luhnow) has flatly turned away that possibility, stating that the team has no designs on trading away last year’s 1st-round draft pick (and the team’s #1-ranked prospect).

Related: The Astros’ Bregman Roadblock = Trade Block?

The Texas Rangers chalked up a Friday loss, bringing their losing streak to 3. The Astros chipped a game off their lead, by beating Seattle, 7-3, and now trail the Rangers by just 4.5 games, 4 games back in the loss column.

The Astros have made the first move. Ball’s in your court, Rangers.

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Brad Ramone with (L-R) Dee Dee, Johnny, and Joey Ramone, backstage at Houston's Liberty Hall, July, 1977.

Johnny, the Ramones' influential guitarist, who passed away in 2004 at 55, was an avid baseball and New York Yankees fan since childhood. He even once ranked baseball above rock'n'roll in a personal Top 10 List!

Like Johnny, my love for rock is only equaled by my love for baseball and my hometown Houston Astros, present and past!

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Brad Kyle