The Astros signed Gurriel to a five-year contract as an international free agent in July 2016. Gurriel defected from Cuba along with his brother Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in February 2016.
Gurriel has very natural hitting ability. He can hit for average and brings solid power to the plate. Gurriel’s stateside career began in minor-league baseball. He played at several levels last year, including Rookie ball, Class-A Advanced, Double-A and Triple-A. His composite batting average at those four developmental classifications was .250 in 61 plate appearances. He hit 2 home runs and drove in 14 runs. He walked twice and struck out only 15 times, showing an ability to make contact.
After giving him some time to transition to his new environment, the Astros promoted Gurriel to the major-league club. He made his big-league debut against the Baltimore Orioles on August 21, 2016. He got a hit in one of his two at-bats in that game. He went on to play in 36 games and finished the season hitting .262 with 3 home runs and 15 RBIs.
Gurriel isn’t very tall, but he is very strong and uses every inch of his frame in his approach at the plate. He should be able to hit some major-league home runs as he becomes more comfortable with big-league pitching and his still-new surroundings.
Gurriel is an experienced, professional hitter. He recognizes pitches well but may not have seen as many consistently high-quality breaking balls during every game he played in his past. That, too, will be an adjustment. However, he has good eye-hand coordination and quick hands that will help him at the major-league level.
In the times I have scouted Gurriel, I have seen a rather level swing without much loft. That translates to plenty of gap doubles and fewer home runs than one might expect from such a strong hitter. But the home runs may still materialize.
He makes enough solid barrel-of-the-bat contact to be trusted in a traditional run-producing slot in the batting order. The Astros are hitting him in the No. 8 position most of the time. However, the team is loaded with power hitters such as Carlos Correa, Carlos Beltran, Alex Bregman, and Brian McCann that make Gurriel pale in comparison. They may even elect to put George Springer, probably their most powerful hitter, in the middle of the order. They are so deep that Springer usually leads off. The depth forces Gurriel down further in the order.
He has enough speed to take an extra base, but one shouldn’t count upon him to be a base-stealing threat. He may steal a few here and there, but speed and stolen bases are not what he is about.
Defensively, he has a strong arm and can make plays at both corners. It’s even possible he can play some in left field if needed. For the Astros, Gurriel has fit nicely as an everyday first baseman.
Gurriel still has rookie status this season with the Astros.
Offensively, Gurriel may not have the type of power he flashed when he was younger playing in Cuba. He hit 20 or more home runs in six of his 12 seasons playing for Sancti Spiritus in Cuba. His best home run production came in 2009 when he hit 30.
It is doubtful he can hit 20 home runs for the Astros, but anything is possible. Houston’s Minute Maid Park is conducive to home runs with a friendly short left field target.
Range, or lack thereof, may be an issue that creeps in with Gurriel. He is not as lithe or agile as he was when he was a bit younger and he played third base and second base regularly in Cuba. He gets to balls at first base and that’s probably a very good fit for him on a club that can play Alex Bregman at third.
Gurriel’s history as an outstanding baseball player in Cuba made him a highly-desirable international free agent after he and his brother defected.
Playing for Sancti Spiritus and eventually Industriales in the Cuban National Series (the Cuban professional baseball league) he won the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 2005. He was also a member of Cuba’s national team that helped Cuba win a Gold Medal in the 2004 Summer Olympics as well as the World Cup of Baseball Championships in 2003 and 2005. He was a member of the 2006 Cuban World Baseball Classic team, playing second base and hitting .273 for the tournament.
During my visit to Cuba last January I learned that both Gurriel brothers were prized players in Cuban baseball. They are spoken of in glowing terms for their hitting ability and overall tools. Yulieski won higher praise than his 23-year-old younger brother Lourdes, who now plays third base, shortstop, and left field in the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
Yulieski Gurriel was considered by many to be the top player on the island of Cuba in his most productive years. However, both he and his brother had always wanted to play professional baseball in the United States. Now they have their chance.
THE FUTURE FOR GURRIEL
The Astros have signed Gurriel through 2020. It remains to be seen how effective he can be in the final year or two of that deal. However, if this season is any indication of his newly-found comfort level, the team will be pleased to have him. He has been very hot at the start of this 2017 season. Continuing to hit the ball with authority and consistency, he is hitting .324 as of this writing.
Gurriel offers the Astros a solid solution at first base. While the team has once-highly-touted A.J. Reed waiting in the wings to play first base, some of the projections for Reed have diminished and he isn’t the “can’t-miss” prospect many had labeled him in the past. Gurriel may staff first base for the entire length of his contract. If he is replaced at that position, he will certainly be a solid designated hitter.
Once the finest player in Cuba, Gurriel offers the Astros a good-hitting and average defensive player with a lengthy history and career of making consistently-solid, barrel-of-the-bat contact.
Gurriel has a rather flat swing with little loft, but he will hit his share of home runs.
A good athlete, he isn’t tall, but he is strong. He will get a nice share of doubles in hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park in Houston. Gurriel’s brother Lourdes, Jr. is in development in the Toronto Blue Jays system. Lourdes does not have the highly-successful MVP-type background in Cuba as did Yulieski, but he can play.
After defecting from Cuba and signing a five-year contract with the Astros, Gurriel should be a core part of the Astros’ run to the playoffs for several years to come.
SCOUTING PHRASE FOR GURRIEL: A seasoned, professional line-drive hitter with a chance to add length to an already-strong Houston Astros lineup.
SCOUTING GRADE FOR GURRIEL: 50 – An average major-league quality player
By Bernie Pleskoff