As the 2021 baseball season is underway, the Houston Astros front office will likely have some tough decisions for beyond this year. The biggest decision for GM James Click will be deciding on a long-term contract for Carlos Correa, but it’s worth keeping track of another key Astro player – first baseman Yuli Gurriel.
The right-hander enters this season 37-years-old and in his sixth year with the club. He is currently on a one-year contract worth $6.5 million, with a club option going into the 2022 season. Click will need to decide on re-signing him, getting another extension or parting ways.
While Yuli Gurriel is off to a hot start, what does his future with the Astros look like?
Gurriel has been an integral part of this dominant Astros’ era, someone with positional flexibility who is also really dangerous at the plate. Gurriel has hit .289 with the Astros, with an OPS of .804 to go along with 72 home runs and 304 RBIs in roughly 2,000 at bats. Before his time in Houston, Gurriel was a superstar in Cuba where he dominated the professional league from his teenage years up to his 30s (.337 BA and 1.003 OPS in 15 seasons).
If you only look at Gurriel’s 2019 stats, you’d think the Astros would be crazy not to resign him. In 2019, Gurriel hit .298 with 31 HRs, 104 RBIs and an .884 OPS. However, when you look at his 2020 stats, it’s a little unnerving. I understand he played hurt and only had 230 ABs, but Gurriel hit .232 and had a sub .700 OPS. He faded hard at the plate in September and just was unable to shake the slump during the playoffs – so much so it left me wondering if he was done.
Houston must decide how much longer to keep Gurriel as their everyday first baseman. Yuli will be 38 this year, and there aren’t a whole lot of players that are productive past that age. The Astros could look to replace Gurriel for cheap in free agency, or they can groom prospect Taylor Jones as a potential in-house replacement for 2022 and on.
However, guys like Yuli Gurriel are not so easy to replace. He’s is an XBH savant with a ton of power and an aggressive approach that challenges pitchers. Gurriel is in the top 95% in hard-hit rates in the league, although he has one the highest strikeout rates in the league as well. He typically crushes off-speed pitches, hits .305 against righty-pitchers, and (except for last year) generally improves his batting average and power as the season progresses. That lethal dependability isn’t easy to replicate.
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One player with a bat profile similar to Gurriel was Gary Sheffield. Sheffield is a Hall-of-Famer, a 9x All Star with more production and natural power over his career – however I feel both players are similar in their aggressive approach and hard-hit rates. Also, like Gurriel, Sheffield had a similar career progression as a professional starting from his teens leading all the way up to his 40s.
To get an idea of how Gurriel might age, let’s look at how Sheffield aged out of the league. When Sheffield was in his mid-30s, his batting average was .307 with an OPS of .947 while playing for the New York Yankees. In Sheffield’s last three years as a pro (age 38-40), his batting average was .253 with an OPS of .790. Although he was still productive, Sheffield had a 16% drop off in both batting average and OPS in those final seasons.
Some hitters can age well, as is the case with Nelson Cruz, but most fade off around this age. Yuli Gurriel might very well age like wine, but he isn’t one of those bulky power guys with monster homers to lean on. Gurriel relies more on hard-contact and extra base hits to generate production.
Although he is off to a hot start, it will be worth keeping track of Gurriel’s OPS as the season wanes on. If his OPS numbers slip down below .780 (10-15% off his career average) that might indicate that he’s starting to fall off.
But if his OPS stays north of .900 (like he is so far this year), he should have another monster 2019-like season and will balance out Houston’s potent lineup. At that point, Click would have to lock him in for at least another year.