Yulieski Gurriel has gone through more major changes in the last three years than most people encounter in a lifetime. Switching positions? Please, that’s the least of it.
The former Cuban league star is moving across the diamond from third base to become the Houston Astros’ regular first baseman. He has received tutelage from Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell, who underwent the same transition when he reached the majors, and is learning the finer points of the position.
The difficulty of the switch hardly compares with the life-altering events Gurriel has dealt with, such as:
- Joining the Yokohama Bay Stars of the Japan Central League in 2014 as one of the first Cubans allowed to play abroad under the Castro regime.
- Defecting along with brother Lourdes following the February 2016 Caribbean Series in the Dominican Republic.
- Having his parents and brother Yunieski join them stateside a month later.
- Signing a five-year, $47.5 million contract with the Astros last July.
- Making his major league debut in August.
Gurriel doesn’t even go by the exact same name he made famous as a regular on the Cuban national team and a three-time participant in the World Baseball Classic. His last name at the time was spelled Gourriel – the brothers eventually dropped the “o’’ from the original French spelling – and his first name on the lineup card now appears as Yuli, the shortened version used by his friends and relatives back home.
“With all these changes, we might as well have another one,’’ Gurriel said in Spanish with a laugh.
As with many of his countrymen, Gurriel has found the adjustment to a new life off the field more challenging than on the diamond. The language, the culture, the food, the weather, all take getting used to, regardless of how much wealthier he is now.
The process of adapting became smoother once the rest of the family met up with Yulieski and Lourdes – an infielder/outfielder who signed with the Toronto Blue Jays – in their new hometown of Miami.
Gurriel, 32, makes it clear he has no regrets about leaving. For years he was regarded as Cuba’s top player and a darling of the scouts, who watched him thrive in international tournaments and fantasized about bringing him into their teams.
Yet Gurriel remained loyal to his homeland, insisting on staying until he could pursue his major league aspirations with the government’s blessing. Abandoning Cuba would have been tantamount to treason. He was baseball royalty, the son of a legendary player – former league MVP Lourdes Sr. – who played with his two brothers on the national team in 2015, an unprecedented feat.
His hopes were raised when then-President Obama announced a normalizing of relations with Cuba in December 2014, but Gurriel soon realized that wouldn’t open the door for Cubans to play in the U.S., at least not anytime soon.
“When it didn’t happen, I had to make my move,’’ Gurriel said in the Astros spring training clubhouse. “I spent 15 years playing there, and every year I would get offers and approaches to leave. But I held fast until the end.
“I had accomplished several goals, had played in Japan, which has a very high level. But I still had that thing inside me that I had never played in the big leagues and didn’t know how I would fare. I didn’t want my career to end without finding out. I thought, even if it’s in the final stages of my career, I want to try it.’’
The Astros believe Gurriel has plenty left before he reaches those final stages. He batted .262 with three homers, 15 RBI and a .677 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 36 games last season, but those numbers require perspective.
Not only was Gurriel adjusting to a new country and to pro ball, but he had not played regularly for more than five months until signing, then had 56 at-bats in the minors before moving up to Houston in the middle of a playoff chase.
“I wasn’t expecting us to see the real Yuli until this year, when he had a full offseason to get ready,’’ general manager Jeff Luhnow said.
Gurriel worked out with Lourdes Jr. in the offseason, and now has a full spring training to blend in with his teammates and continue learning about this brand of baseball.
He performed well in Japan, batting .305 with an .884 OPS in his one season, and said the pitching quality is comparable to the majors, except for the increased velocity he discovered stateside. He soon learned an even bigger challenge was the unrelenting schedule, with extensive travel and games nearly every single day.
“I only spent a month in the big leagues and I was like, ‘Wow,’’’ Gurriel said. “There were times I was so worn down I could barely put my pants on. You have to get to the ballpark really early. It’s not like that in Cuba. It’s more like a job.’’
That job won’t require carrying the team, but merely contributing regularly to a club expected to compete for supremacy in the AL West.
The Astros have a balanced lineup featuring the likes of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Evan Gattis, the up-and-coming Alex Bregman and new additions Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick and Brian McCann.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Gurriel does not fit the prototype of the home run-hitting first baseman, but that’s not what the Astros expect from him.
“I don’t think we necessarily need our first baseman to be a slugger,’’ Luhnow said. “I do think Yuli’s going to drive in a lot of runs. I think he’s got a chance to be a high-average, doubles type of guy, and I do think he’s going to have double-digit home runs.’’
Even with the position change, Gurriel is feeling more settled in. He’s taking English lessons and feels comfortable bantering in Spanish with his Latin teammates.
Team leaders like Altuve and Correa helped smooth the acclimation to his new club when Gurriel arrived in August, and manager A.J. Hinch sees that process eventually paying off on the field.
“I think we’ll see a strong contributor on a good team,’’ Hinch said. “I think he knows coming in he doesn’t have to wow people. He just has to be a good player. And I think his comfort level inside our clubhouse will help him be comfortable from a baseball standpoint.’’
By Jorge Ortiz