Luis Valbuena has a 157 wRC+ since the beginning of June playing third base for the Houston Astros. Super-prospect Alex Bregman is beating down the door with his performance at Triple-A. Perfect fits be damned. Try and tell a contending club it’s got too many good players. They’ll find some room.
MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez just broke some news:
— Jesse Sanchez (@JesseSanchezMLB) July 15, 2016
Let’s get brought up to speed. Gurriel (previously spelled Gourriel) is 32, and he’s been considered Cuba’s best baseball player for about a decade. He’s primarily played third base, and also kicked around at shortstop and, more recently, second base. In 15 years between Cuba and Japan, Gurriel hit .335/.417/.580 with 250 homers and 121 steals. In early February, Yulieski and his younger brother Lourdes Jr., 22, defected from the island. In June, Yulieski was declared a free agent, able to sign with any club free of international spending limits. He’d been linked to the Dodgers, of course. The Mets had shown some interest. The Angels seemed to make some sense. Now, he’s an Astro.
BaseballAmerica’s Ben Badler worked up a scouting report on Gurriel last April in which he called him a plus defender at third with quick reactions, athleticism, a 70-grade arm, and the occasional mental lapse. He’s a complete hitter who bats from the right side, able to hit for average and draw a walk, and scouts see good bat speed that should translate to plus power in the majors. At the time, Badler drew comps to Hanley Ramirez and David Wright, which don’t sound so great anymore, but remember this was before the beginning of the 2015 season; Ramirez was coming off a 135 wRC+ at third base with the Dodgers, Wright was still Wright. Brian Cartwright does good work translating international player’s stat lines to MLB equivalents, and he projected Gurriel for a .283/.330/.458 line back in February, good for a .340 wOBA. There’s no expectation that Gurriel won’t hit.
Five years for a 32-year-old is perhaps a bit scary, and it’s a little more than what Dave Cameron estimated he might get last month, but Gurriel makes the Astros better now. Or, more accurately, in three weeks or so, which is when FOXSports’ Ken Rosenthal reports he’ll be ready to join the club. The Astros plan to keep Gurriel at third base, which creates an interesting positional logjam in Houston.
Valbuena deserves to keep playing. A.J. Reed is still a super-prospect offensively at first, and then there’s Evan Gattis. The most likely scenario here seems to be Valbuena shifting to first, with Reed and Gattis creating a nice little platoon at designated hitter. But then there’s the Bregman situation. The most common line of thinking’s been that the Valbuena-to-first, Reed/Gattis DH platoon would have begun in a few weeks anyway, but not because of Gurriel taking over at third — because of Bregman taking over at third.
ESPN’s Keith Law recently ranked Bregman the top prospect in baseball in his midseason update. BaseballProspectus had Bregman fourth. He’s ready to contribute now, perhaps as ready as Gurriel. And with a five-year deal, Gurriel’s here to stay. Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve aren’t going anywhere, which suddenly forces us to ask the question: does Alex Bregman have a future in Houston?
It’s still very possible. Probable, even. Maybe Bregman stays in Triple-A for the remainder of the season, given full health in Houston’s infield, and next year the Astros shift Gurriel to first, opening up third for Bregman. Maybe Bregman begins getting reps in left field and shares the position with Colby Rasmus — though that happening this year seems somewhat unlikely not only because Bregman’s never played the outfield (though general manager Jeff Luhnow did recently suggest the possibility) but because bringing him up to play the small side of a platoon doesn’t seem to make much sense. It becomes more simple if the Astros have faith in Bregman as a left fielder despite his inexperience.
Or maybe the Astros now have the ability to dangle what Dave Cameron just ranked as baseball’s 37th-most valuable trade chip at the deadline. Rebuilding clubs would pay a fortune in current major league talent for the rights to Bregman’s future, and if the Astros really want to push in on this season, Gurriel’s presence at third base might suddenly allow them to do that. The Astros could probably use some more pitching to be taken seriously as a World Series contender, or even favorite, in the American League. Who knows, maybe the Rays might be more willing to take a phone call from a Houston area code about Chris Archer all of a sudden.
What we know for sure: the Houston Astros just acquired a premium talent near the trade deadline and they didn’t have to give up any talent of their own, present or future, to do so. Within the month, a Cuban legend will take over at the hot corner for Houston, and they figure they’ll immediately become a better team because of it. What we also know for sure: the Astros now have some very interesting flexibility on their hands. They don’t have to trade anyone — the Rangers have done just fine holding onto Jurickson Profar, Rougned Odor and Elvis Andrus — but Houston now possesses the possibility of dangling an elite young infield talent on the trade market without having to worry one bit about the short-term or long-term future of their own infield. What we know for less sure: what Houston’s actually going to do. Rest assured, they’ve got a plan in mind. Now we just wait to see what it is.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at email@example.com.