Astros go all-out at third base, may have second thoughts

Alan Truex

HOUSTON — Very unexpectedly, the Houston Astros won the auction for Cuba’s greatest baseball player, Yulieski Gurriel.  He’s 6-0, 190 pounds, and he churned numbers in Cuba’s top league that seem impossible: .500 batting average (87-for-174) and .874 slugging and such.  Can we trust the communists to be accurate with their production claims?

Gurriel recently auditioned for the Astros — wore their uniform and took selfies — and he did the same  for the Dodgers and Mets.  The Giants and Yankees were trying to line up meetings with him, but too late.  It didn’t bother anyone that he’s 32 years old.  Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow saw him as being “really in the prime of his career.”

You know, 32 is the new 27.

The truth is Gurriel is at least a year beyond the prime of most third basemen.  Yet the Astros were not far off market value by committing $47.5 million for five years of employment.   Such is the superhero reputation he’s achieved.  Only eight third basemen in the majors earn more than Gurriel.

The glamor centers like New York, LA and San Francisco must wonder why he spurned them for swampy Houston.  Perhaps he prefers the Gulf Coast to the others because it’s closer to his homeland.

It’s the Astros’ side of this deal that perplexes.  Apparently Luhnow’s analytics turned up clues that he’s signed a clone of Brooks Robinson or Mike Schmidt, who were indeed quite good at 36.

To the extent Houstonians can muster exhilaration over any sport that doesn’t use a lopsided ball, they’re excited about the Astros doing what they rarely do, signing a free agent other teams want.

But then come the second thoughts.

Has Luhnow created more problems than he’s solved?  Who’s on third?  Too many.

Even before they negotiated with Gurriel, the Astros planned to call up this country’s No. 1 baseball prospect, Alex Bregman, who last year was drafted second in the first round.  His natural position is shortstop, but since Carlos Correa will be playing it for the next 15 years or so, it was determined that Bregman would go to third when he gets his promotion.

But what about the incumbent third baseman?  Luis Valbuena is 30 and having a career year.  In Wins Above Replacement he’s fourth on the team at 2.1, just 0.3 under would-be All-Star George Springer.

Since he’s a left-handed batter,Valbuena would give up some at-bats to the right-handed Bregman.  But he wouldn’t give up many.  Valbuena could spend most of his time at first base, where he’s played 37 games for the Astros.

He’s been on that carousel with A.J. Reed, Tyler White, Marwin Gonzalez and Jon Singleton.  At 5-10 Valbuena is too squatty for the position, but he can hit big-league pitching.  None of the other pretenders can, at least not yet.

Enter Gurriel, and suddenly the picture becomes even more muddled, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Valbuena will he pushed off third base entirely, unless Bregman and Gurriel both blow their shot at it.  When the Astros lose a game because of an overthrow to first base, Valbuena will feel uneasy.  So will the pitcher and the rest of the team.

Having two corner infielders out of position is unsettling.  I’ve seen talented teams unravel as players try to adjust to a new position that doesn’t suit their skills.  Their offensive performance is affected as much as their defense.

In this golden age of social media, players hear rumors constantly swirling in their ears.  They hear that Gurriel may go to left field next season.  Or that Bregman may go there.  Or that Valbuena may be traded.  Any day now.  After all, his value will never be higher.

The Astros are hot — 20-8 — playing with more confidence and poise than we’ve seen in years.  Seems an odd time to shake up the team, get players worried about their job and role and future address. 

And why load up three-deep at third base?  Couldn’t they find a Cuban center fielder?  Or lefthanded reliever?  A starting pitcher better than Mike Fiers?  Or perhaps a 6-foot-tall first baseman?

And aside from bringing tension to the clubhouse, you wonder about implications for the future.

Astros owner Jim Crane has been a mini-spender ever since buying the team in 2011 from the almost as frugal Drayton McLane, who self-imposed a salary cap of 50 percent of total revenue.  Crane probably sees it much the same way.

Despite being the country’s fourth-largest market, Houston this year ranks 17th in MLB attendance, which is fairly typical.  This has never been a hotbed of baseball, even though it’s popular with the city’s youth as well as with its seniors.

The problem may be uninspiring owners after the visionary first one, Judge Roy Hofheinz.  It’s also true the Astros are not helped by this city’s sprawl, its low density of population, meaning a long distance drive to the ballpark after a much-contested commute.  This being the great state of Anti-Taxes, there’s little public transportation to ease the congestion.

For whatever reasons, Crane can’t count on the revs that smaller-market teams bring their owners.  So if this deal doesn’t turn out well, I don’t see Crane ever going all Gurriel again.

This may be a bigger gamble than Luhnow himself realizes.  Over the past five years he’s methodically built a roster with as much young talent as anyone’s.  Yet now he’s reaching back a half generation for Gurriel, while limiting what he can do three or four years from now.  I’m not sure this turns out to be a bright idea.


Alan Truex formerly covered the Astros and Major League Baseball for the Houston Chronicle.

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