How valuable is Yuli Gurriel, and how long will he continue to wear an Astros uniform?
The sudden burst of clutch hitting off the bat of Yuli Gurriel inspired me to take a deeper look into the numbers. Just how valuable has Gurriel been to the Astros, and how long will the 35-year-old be in Houston?
The answers are a bit complicated, and some things are not easy to quantify. It’s also tough to predict how things will go in the future, but Gurriel’s age and contract situation can shed some light.
Gurriel’s numbers at the plate are down this season compared to his past two campaigns. He’s at a .267/.303/.423 batting line with eight homers and 37 RBIs in 77 games. In each of the last two seasons, he posted a batting average in the .290s.
Gurriel doesn’t walk much, though he’s been walking at a higher rate this season. He also doesn’t strike out much, which is a plus. But he doesn’t run well and doesn’t offer much power, and he’s a decent but unspectacular defender. All told, he’s been worth just 0.4 wins above replacement so far this year, making him roughly a league average player.
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In that sense, as long as his presence on the field doesn’t hurt the Astros, they’ll be fine with having him on the roster. That’s especially true given his apparent propensity to come up big in the clutch. That type of thing is difficult to quantify, as it’s more of an intangible trait.
To be sure, Gurriel’s value to the team goes beyond simply the numbers. He’s a veteran presence in the clubhouse and does seemingly have a knack for getting the big hit every now and then. Those intangibles make him more important than any stat will show.
What the Future Holds
Gurriel is making $10.4 million this year and is guaranteed $8.4 million in 2020. After that, the Astros control him for two additional seasons through arbitration. By the time he would reach free agency, he would already be 38 years old.
However, his numbers are declining. Gurriel’s OPS has declined in each of the last two seasons, sitting at .726 so far in 2019. OPS+ (which is OPS adjusted for ballpark factors) has him at a 92, which is below league average.
On the surface, he’s a 35-year-old first baseman who offers below average offensive production for his position. The Astros can live with that now, but what happens in a year or two when his numbers decline even further? Eventually that will outweigh the intangibles.
Gurriel’s timeline will probably depend on the development of Seth Beer. Considering he has started 33 games at first base and just one in the outfield for Corpus Christi, the Astros are clearly trying to develop Beer into the first baseman of the future. He has reached Double-A just one year after being drafted and is advancing quickly, so he could be ready to challenge for a major league job as soon as next season.
In that scenario, Gurriel would probably move into more of a utility role. Considering the Astros also have Aledmys Diaz, that could be a redundancy. If Beer is ready for the everyday job by 2021, it would not surprise me to see the Astros non-tender Gurriel after 2020 and avoid paying him a large salary via arbitration.
But if Gurriel is able to avoid a continued decline in production, he could end up with a place on the roster anyway. Other players could get hurt or leave, and Gurriel could continue to provide value to the team.
Essentially it looks like he’ll be on the team through next season, but after that is anyone’s guess.
***Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and MiLB.com***