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Former BayStars infielder Gurriel gets opportunity to pursue dream with Astros

by Wayne Graczyk

Good luck to the Houston Astros on acquiring Cuban star player Yulieski Gurriel. The American League club signed the 32-year-old infielder earlier this month and, after obtaining a U.S. work visa and playing some tune-up games for a team in the Astros’ minor league system, he was expected to suit up for Houston and boost the team’s chances for post-season play in October.

There is no question Gurriel has shown he has the talent to succeed at the game’s highest levels, and it has been his dream to play in the majors since establishing himself as one of the best — if not the best — Cuban player over the past decade.

Gurriel can play a variety of positions, including the outfield, but his best defense would appear to be at second or third base. He has a batting stance and a fluid swing that reminds me of Cuban-born Tony Perez, the heavy-hitting first baseman on the Cincinnati Reds championship teams of the 1970s.

Yes, this is the same Gurriel who played the second half of the 2014 season in Japan’s Central League with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars. He was part of the influx of Cuban position players in Japanese baseball that year, joining with countrymen Leslie Anderson and Freddy Cepeda of the Yomiuri Giants and Alfredo Despaigne of the Chiba Lotte Marines.

Gurriel put up good numbers in Yokohama, batting .305 with 11 home runs and 30 RBIs in just 62 games after joining the team in June of that year.

There were off-the-field concerns, though. Gurriel, like some other ballplayers, does not like to fly, and he made Japanese sports newspaper headlines in early July two years ago when he refused to travel by air with the team for a two-game series against the Yomiuri Giants in Naha, Okinawa.

Weather forecasts had indicated an early season typhoon was headed for the Ryukyu Islands and, concerned about his own safety, he decided to stay home and skip the games, one of which was rained out anyway due to the storm. His Yokohama teammates and the Giants players all flew safely to Naha and back to the Japanese mainland.

The BayStars officials were not happy a player balked at taking a road trip, but apparently felt Gurriel still had the skills to be one of the top players in Japan, and the club decided to bring him back to play in 2015, even after Gurriel insisted the team also hire his younger brother, infielder Lourdes Gurriel, Jr.

Both Gurriels were on the Yokohama spring training roster — but they were not in spring camp. As the 2015 season was about to begin in late March, the team announced the release of the two brothers. BayStars general manager Shigeru Takada said at the time, “We got tired of waiting for them to show up and felt it better we look elsewhere for foreign player help.”

At the same time, American and Cuban government officials were openly discussing the easing of travel restrictions between the two countries that might open the door for Cuban ballplayers to play in the majors, and Gurriel no doubt began setting his mind on the big leagues.

Rather than wait for further developments in U.S.-Cuban relations, Gurriel and his brother defected from Cuba to Florida in February of this year, and the reported five-year, $47.5 million deal he got from Houston is surely more than he would have been paid had he stayed in Japan.

During the few times I got to talk with him while he was in Japan in 2014, we chatted in my English — not his Spanish — and I was surprised at the level of his conversational skills. His English was easily understandable, considering he had not played previously in a league outside his native country. Maybe he was learning the second language as part of his preparation for living and playing ball in North America. in the future.

That future is now, and we’ll see if Gurriel can make a big difference in Texas, as the Astros seek to get into the American League playoffs for the second year in a row. It is ironic someone with a fear of flying will be playing for a team named after those who fly fearlessly into space.

Major League Baseball travel is almost exclusively by air, so it is important for Gurriel to overcome his aerophobia. He will also need to blend in comfortably with his new teammates and display the talent that gave him the reputation of being a top player on the Cuban national team in the Olympics and other global competitions.

The task of manager A.J. Hinch and bench coach Trey Hillman will be to integrate Gurriel into the lineup without disrupting the rhythm and chemistry of the team. A July 21 article by Stewart Gibson on isportsweb pointed out the Astros are pretty well set at the positions he would normally play, so there may not be a position for Gurriel to just fly in — er, walk in — and take over.

There’s the double-play combo of 2014 American League batting champion Jose Altuve at second and Carlos Correa at shortstop, with Luis Valbuena at third base. All are doing OK in the field and offensively, and the hunch is Hinch may alternate the right-handed hitting Gurriel at third with the lefty-swinging Valbuena.

Or he could use Gurriel as a utility man and insert him at any of the three positions and give the others an occasional defensive day off, since the Astros are in the American League where the designated hitter option is available.

Houston also just called up hot prospect shortstop Alex Bregman, and Hinch has been quoted as saying too much talent is a good “problem” to have, so we’ll see how he handles the situation.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com