Why the Astros Should Reacquire Yuli Gurriel

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals
Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals / Mitchell Layton/GettyImages

With eyes on the prize to repeat as World Series champions, the Houston Astros should strongly consider inking Yuli Gurriel for their playoff run. Read on for more.

The Houston Astros hobble into the MLB All-Star break nine games above .500, sitting in second place within the AL West and tied for the 11th best record in the majors. All great potential problems to have for teams like the Royals, Athletics, White Sox, Nationals, and Rockies—but the Astros want more.

While the Astros’ on-field performance appears a far cry from their championship run last year, questions abound. Defensively, can the Astros make due with a patchwork rotation lacking the firepower of a now-departed Justin Verlander and injuries to rotation stalwarts, Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers, Jr.?

And offensively, do the Astros have what it takes to make a run for another title?

When it comes to swinging the bat in comparison to other American League teams, the Astros appear demonstrably pedestrian in the middle of the pack with an eighth-place ranking in batting average, and a seventh-place ranking in on-base percentage.

And across the entire major leagues, the defending champion Astros rank just tenth in runs scored. Also troubling, the Astros’s interdivisional rivals, the Texas Rangers, lead MLB in runs scored, and Houston trails its instate competitor by over 100 runs scored on the season.

With a 2023 offense lacking the consistent contributions of Michael Brantley, José Altuve, and Yordan Álvarez, the Astros need help—even to win their division. And with the August 1st trade deadline looming closer—and José Abreu struggling offensively—could the Astros reacquire an old helping hand?

A case for Gurriel’s return to Houston

Perhaps crazy—but what if the Astros attempted to reacquire Yulieski Gurriel for the remainder of the season? Sure—the multiyear contract for José Abreu might have mortgaged the proverbial farm through 2025, but what if Gurriel could provide an intangible glue that could help hold the Astros’ hopes together for another championship run? Granted—one player in baseball does not win a championship for a team, but could Gurriel deepen the Astros’ lackluster offense? Let’s take a look.

Consider this—Gurriel, not a hall-of-famer by any metric, provides a similar role to former Houston Rockets legend, Robert Horry. Big Shot Bob played a pivotal supporting role on seven rosters that ultimately won the NBA Championship—including two titles for the legendary mid-90s Houston Rockets teams featuring one of the best basketball players of all-time, Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon. Horry reached the NBA finals in 43 percent of the seasons he played; similarly, Gurriel has reached the World Series in 50 percent of his seasons as a major leaguer.

Also like Horry, Gurriel has helped Houston to two championship titles. Gurriel has proven clutch, holding a respectable .276 batting average against the toughest pitching staffs through 25 games of World Series action.

Why to take it easy on Abreu

Perhaps Abreu just needs more time. Assuming there is no unannounced nagging injury, it might just be a matter of swing mechanics and making adjustments. And with Abreu’s track record of personal accolades—including earning the 2014 AL Rookie of the Year and the 2020 AL MVP award—the three-time All-Star just might come out with a bang in the second half of the season.

In fairness to Abreu, over his decade-long career in the majors, he finished with a .280-or-better batting average in seven of his regular season campaigns. While he sits at .237 halfway through the season with the Astros, for the right-handed slugger, it has to feel frustrating.

Abreu only finished as low as the .260’s twice in his career, so a .237 batting average likely has to feel like a gut punch. Known as a gifted hitter and hard worker, there is no doubt he is motivated to overcome his on-field struggles at the plate and return to form. The Astros’ best move could be to just ride it out with Abreu and hope for the best.

In fairness to the Astros’ front office attempting to upgrade the team last season, Abreu has not only won an AL MVP, but finished in the top-20 in MVP voting in six of his nine completed seasons. Understandably, the Astros’ front office would laud that kind of production as an indicator of future potential to help the Astros win another championship.

But—what if the Astros could keep Abreu and reacquire Gurriel?

Think about it. The Miami Marlins only platoon Gurriel at first. And perhaps Marlins’ manager Skip Schumaker reasons he does not need Gurriel. After all, with Gurriel only playing in less than 60 games this season—and the Marlins entering the All-Star break with the second-best record in the National League—perhaps the Marlins feel they have found their on-field formula with their roster pieces and would be willing to part ways with Gurriel now for some Astros’ prospects or mid- to late-round future draft picks. Also enticing, Gurriel’s salary this season appears to be less than $2 million dollars, and the veteran first baseman stands to hit free agency relatively soon.

Yuli Gurriel versus Jose Abreu offensively this season

To compare the offensive production of Abreu and Gurriel this season, it remains important to acknowledge the Marlins do not play Gurriel every day. This year, Gurriel has only participated in 61 percent of Miami’s regular season games. Conversely, Abreu has played in 95 percent of the Astros’ contests—a nod to the three-time All-Star’s durability.

One reason for Gurriel’s diminished playing time for Miami could be Gurriel’s age. The former Astro possesses a disadvantage in this category compared to the younger Abreu. While both players are older than the MLB average age of 29, Gurriel will turn 40 next summer while Abreu will turn 37 during the off-season.

Nevertheless, Gurriel’s 217 plate appearances for Miami to Abreu’s 365 for Houston this season represent about 60 percent of the offensive playing time Abreu has received in an Astros’ uniform. And in that smaller sample size, Gurriel has significantly outpaced Abreu’s offensive production.

Most obviously, Gurriel holds a .268 batting average to Abreu’s .237. Also noteworthy, Gurriel has been fanned in less than 12 percent of his plate appearances compared to Abreu's 23-percent strikeout percentage. Moreover, Gurriel has earned a walk in nearly nine percent of his plate appearances this season while Abreu has only walked six percent of the time. While nothing to boast about for either player this season, Gurriel also features a superior .332 on-base percentage to Abreu’s .286.

Interestingly, both players feature similar slightly above-average MLB exit velocities and are within a percentage point of a .290 batting average on balls-in-play this season. Translation—neither player is officially done, and Gurriel proves virtually interchangeable with no drop-off for the Astros' current first baseman production offensively. But if the Astros reacquire Gurriel, how do Abreu and Gurriel compare defensively this season fielding first base?

Comparing Gurriel and Abreu defensively

Defensively, Gurriel has started at first base 49 times for the Marlins to Abreu’s 81 starts for the Astros. In effect, Gurriel has played about sixty percent of the innings at first base that Abreu has logged this season.

Abreu has committed three errors at first base for the Astros this year, giving him a .996 fielding percentage. Did you know—despite Abreu’s offensive woes, his fielding percentage this season ranks him as the ninth-best defensive first baseman in the majors? With the mitt, Abreu’s ’23 campaign so far touts the best fielding percentage he has ever registered in his entire career.

Meanwhile, in a smaller sample size, Gurriel holds a comparable .995 fielding percentage this season as a first baseman, having committed two errors. Again—no perceivable drop-off in defensive quality.

Closing thoughts

If the Astros were to reacquire Gurriel from the Marlins before the trade deadline, Gurriel could arguably add depth by spot-starting as a first baseman who is currently outperforming Abreu offensively. And in their mid- to late-30’s, Gurriel coming in to back up Abreu at first base allows both players a chance to rest and log some time as designated hitters.

But it’s not just depth, Gurriel offers the Astros versatility. The 39-year-old right-handed slugger could be inserted not only as a designated or pinch hitter, but at a number of defensive positions. While longer in the tooth now, in his career as an Astro, Gurriel has garnered major league experience playing every infield position—excluding pitcher or catcher—as well as left field.

Gurriel’s presence, should he be personally content going forward in a part-time role for Houston—as he currently does in Miami—might also work to motivate Abreu not to be outdone by a fellow first baseman. In the back of Abreu’s mind, he’d have to know that if he let’s off the gas in turning his season around, Baker might just start his predecessor.

Furthermore, Gurriel just might work wonders for the Astros’ team chemistry and as a former fan favorite inject excitement for the Astros’ fan base. What’s the worst that could happen?