“You've got to have an ace in the hole. A little secret that nobody knows. Life is a gamble, a game we all play, but you need to save something for a rainy day. You've got to learn to play your cards right if you expect to win in life. Don't put it all on the line for just one roll. You've got to have an ace in the hole.”
This 1989 number one hit by George Strait could not ring more true about Jeff Lunhow’s 2016 mid season signing of Cuban native Yulieski Gurriel. With his defensive flexibility and starter quality play, Gurriel might just be one of the most important pieces in the Houston lineup that seems destined to make a run at the 2017 World Series.
Prior to signing a 5-year, $47.5 million dollar deal with the Astros, 32-year old Gurriel built a reputation for himself in foreign ball deserving of that contract.
Gurriel began his professional career in Cuba at the age of 17. He played 15 professional seasons in Cuba with a small stint of 63 games in Japan.
During this time Gurriel registered a line of .335/.417/.580 with 250 Home Runs and 1018 RBIs… In his foreign career his batting average has only dipped below .300 twice; in ’02 and ’05 he batted .291.
Gurriel played on the Cuban National Team in several international competitions; He played on the 2004 Cuban Olympic team that won the Gold Medal as well as in the 2003 and 2007 Pan American Games. He also hit .293/.330/.537 with five home runs in 20 games in the 2006, 2009 and 2013 World Baseball Classics.
Upon making his MLB debut on August 10th, 2016, Gurriel went .262/.292/.385 with three home runs and 15 RBIs in 32 games.
So what makes Gurriel the Astros “Ace in the Hole”?
As Spring Training is winding down Gurriel is currently leading the Astros this spring with a batting average of .333 including 2 home runs and 11 RBIs in 51 at bats (.333/.358/.549). Gurriel is penciled in as the Astros everyday first baseman, but his defensive flexibility is what could prove to make him much more valuable to the Astros that what is currently on paper.
The “What ifs” are never fun to talk about but injuries are a major concern for a franchise during the marathon that is the Major League Baseball season. Gurriel gives the Astros plenty of flexibility if an injury were to occur. His flexibility allows the Astros to not solely rely on Marwin Gonzalez to step up and fill the role of replacement player.
First baseman AJ Reed’s impressive spring (.306 with four home runs and 11 RBIs in 36 at bats) makes the “What if” pill easier to swallow if an injury forces Gurriel to move to another position. Even if they do not trust Reed; Gonzalez, Carlos Beltran, or Evan Gattis could potentially fill the role at first if Gurriel needed to switch positions.
What if #1 : What if third baseman Alex Bregman gets hurt?
Good News! Gurriel is a natural third baseman. If Bregman were to go down, Gurriel would then shift over to the position where he has played over 5,000 innings.
What if #2: What if Shortstop Carlos Correa gets hurt?
In this instance Alex Bregman, who played Shortstop for LSU would shift to fill in for Correa, with Gurriel playing third. In 2013 Bregman was the recipient of the 2013 Brooks Wallace Award as the nation's best shortstop. Bregman also started all of LSU’s 129 games at SS during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. If an injury to Correa were to occur, this is the obvious transition.
What if #3: What if there is an outfield injury?
This one is a little trickier, but with the offseason acquisitions of Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick to go along with George Springer and Jake Marisnick, even if there was an issue with injury in the outfield Gurriel has taken some repetitions in Left Field.
Manager A.J. Hinch also has gone on record believing that Gurriel is athletic enough to man the position is necessary, describing him as “very good at all positions in the infield, and he can play the outfield.”
What if #4: What if the unthinkable happens? An injury to Jose Altuve?
Blasphemy! The Astros cannot lose their Silver Slugging, All Star, MVP caliber player right? Let’s hope not, but it can happen. If Altuve were to go down with an injury there would be some shuffling, the last time Gurriel played the position he was 24 years old and he played 256 innings there.
But just as Hinch has said Gurriel can play the outfield, he also said Gurriel can play ALL infield positions. Gurriel certainly would not fill the void of Altuve’s bat, but he should be able to provide adequate defense at second if needed.
One thing for certain is this; Gurriel has been a very good player on the international stage for a long time. He is a known talent unlike so many of the younger players that have left Cuba in the past and because of his flexibility the Astros will utilize their “Ace in the hole” wherever he is needed. That’s not just my opinion that is Lunhow’s plan, “What I want to do is to put as many good players out on the field as possible and let A.J. and the players sort out where they play every night”.