MLB’s trade deadline is less than four weeks away, and it might not be long before the rumor mill kicks into gear.
When it comes to the Astros’ deadline plans, it’s known that they’ll be among the clubs looking to buy. What’s unknown is how exactly the front office will attempt to upgrade the roster. Not because James Click and his staff are an unpredictable bunch, but because the Astros are one of the most complete teams in baseball. Collectively, the offense ranks second in wRC+ while the pitching staff is third in ERA.
There aren’t any gaping holes to fill, but there is one area of particular weakness: first base.
Five teams have a negative fWAR at first base, and the Astros are one of them. The club’s longtime stalwart at the position, Yuli Gurriel, has a minus-0.1 fWAR at the season’s halfway point. He is the only qualified hitter in the lineup who has that lowly distinction.
After winning the AL batting title in 2021, 2022 has been a nightmare season for the 38-year-old Gurriel, who is an impending free agent.
Though both his walk and strikeout rates are similar to his career figures, Gurriel’s slash line sits at .226/.281/.389 entering Friday. It is accompanied by a noticeably low .240 BABIP, but a career-worst .240 xBA dispels the notion that excessive bad luck has hampered La Piña’s production.
Because of his aggressive approach at the plate, Gurriel seldom draws walks, relying largely on collecting hits to get on base. This wasn’t the case in 2021 though, when the Cuban native registered career-highs in wRC+ (134) and OBP (.383), with the latter boosted by a career-high 9.8 percent walk rate.
In hindsight, it appears to have been an outlier.
Gurriel has lost the plate discipline that not only allowed him to get on base a lot in 2021, but enabled him to swing at more hittable pitches, which resulted in higher exit velocities.
Hitting for power has never been Gurriel’s bread and butter — as evidenced by a career Barrel rate of just 3.1 percent — but he is nevertheless on pace to match his home run total of 2021 (15). It could be immaterial, however, if there isn’t a significant boost in overall output.
The second-half power surge Gurriel experienced in 2019, when he hit 17 home runs and posted an ISO of nearly .300, isn’t likely to happen in 2022, given how vastly different the current deadened ball is to 2019’s juiced ball.
It’s not to say Gurriel is incapable of righting the ship and bouncing back after the All-Star break, but considering the August 2 trade deadline is nearing, he’s running out of time to display tangible signs of progress at the plate.
While he has improved in recent weeks, it’s perhaps not substantial enough to thwart the possibility of trading for a replacement.
Houston’s front office will be aiming to optimize the roster in preparation of making another deep October run, and based on his performance this season, Gurriel could understandably be excluded from those plans.
Among the first basemen that could be available on the trade market, two stand out the most: Washington’s Josh Bell and Arizona’s Christian Walker.
Fueled by a gaudy slash line of .310/.393/.502 and excellent walk (11 percent) and strikeout (13.3 percent) rates through 84 games, Bell, 29, is on pace to have the best season of his career and is one of the game’s premier switch-hitters. He is a free agent after the season, making him an ideal rental for any contender.
As for the 31-year-old Walker, his current .211 batting average veils what has been an outstanding 2022 campaign. He owns some of the best peripherals in the big leagues and is in the top 10 percent in terms of xwOBA, Barrel percentage, walk rate, xSLG and OAA.
In addition to already slugging 21 home runs, Walker is one of just three qualified hitters with a Barrel rate of at least 14 percent and a strikeout rate below 20 percent.
The other two are Yordan Álvarez and Bryce Harper.
Unlike Bell, Walker is not an impending free agent and is under team control through the 2024 season.
Gurriel is beloved by the fan base and had been a quality producer up until this season. His influence in drawing Cuban talent to the organization cannot be overstated. But focusing purely on 2022, the reality is that he’s amid the worst season of his career in a year where the Astros are vying for a World Series title. At the age of 38, it’s difficult to envision a stark turnaround.