Make Or Break Year: Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

The Diamondbacks and Blue Jays combined on one of the winter’s biggest trades back in December, though for all of the attention the deal received, much more focus was (understandably) placed on the involvement of Daulton Varsho and Gabriel Moreno than on the fact that Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was now headed to Arizona.  Varsho is a very promising young player and already an ace defender, while Moreno is arguably baseball’s best prospect — with all these future potential in mind, it isn’t necessarily surprising that Gurriel was something of an afterthought.

It wasn’t that long ago that Gurriel was himself a sought-after young talent, when he defected from Cuba in 2016 and signed a seven-year, $22MM deal with Toronto later that year.  He made his MLB debut in April 2018 at age 24 and has since carved out a solid career for himself over five seasons in the Show, yet in some ways, Gurriel has been hampered by those initial high expectations.  Though Gurriel has been much better than many prospects (both international and from the domestic draft) over the years who carried a lot more hype, having “only” a solid career to date has perhaps been a little underwhelming considering how good Gurriel has looked when he has been in top form.

Gurriel’s .285/.329/.468 slash line and 68 homers over 1864 career MLB plate appearances translates to a 115 wRC+, well above the league average.  He has consistently delivered good (and in 2020, elite) hard-hit ball rates, and his barrel rates were similarly pretty consistent before plummeting downwards in 2022.  While Gurriel doesn’t walk much, his strikeout and whiff rates have steadily improved over the last four seasons, with Gurriel topping out in the 78th percentile of all hitters in K% and in the 71st percentile in whiff rate last year.

With all this in mind, however, Gurriel has amassed only 6.2 fWAR over his 468 big league games.  For comparison’s sake, Varsho has 7.1 fWAR over 283 games and 1022 PA, with 4.6 fWAR coming in the 2022 season alone.  Defense accounts for much of Varsho’s advantage, as Gurriel has been roughly an average left fielder since the start of the 2019 season, when factoring in all of the public defensive metrics.  Defensive Runs Saved (+4) likes Gurriel’s outfield work, while UZR/150 (-2.7) and especially Outs Above Average (-16) have been a lot less impressed.  It is worth noting, however, that Gurriel was a finalist for the AL left field Gold Glove in both 2020 and 2021, somewhat in defiance of the mixed reviews from the metrics.

Glovework has been an element of Gurriel’s big league career from the start, as the Blue Jays initially hoped he could be a shortstop prospect or at least a second baseman, but he struggled badly as an infielder.  Fortunately for both Gurriel and the Jays, a position change to left field allowed him to settle in both as a defender and at the plate, even if it limited Gurriel’s overall value in the long term.  As he heads into his age-29 season, Gurriel has only moderate defensive utility as a passable left fielder and as a part-time first baseman, though his solid arm strength suggests that he might be an option in right field (a position he has never played in the majors).

Looking at Gurriel’s batting statistics, his good overall numbers smooth over a lot of streakiness at the plate.  The outfielder is prone to extreme hot and cold stretches, with injuries sometimes factoring into that variance.  Just in 2022, Gurriel had a .601 OPS over his first 154 plate appearances, then posted a .901 OPS in his next 241 PA, then slumped to a .554 OPS in his final 98 PA prior to a hamstring injury that prematurely ended his season in early September.

While that roller-coaster of a season evened out to 114 wRC+ in 493 PA, Gurriel’s sudden lack of power was a concern, as his .108 Isolated Power total was far below the .209 ISO he had previously posted during his career.  Again, injuries might have been a reason, as Gurriel dealt with a wrist problem during the season that eventually required surgery in October, and he is expected to be ready for his first Spring Training with the D’Backs.

It all adds up to a career that has been both inconsistent, yet somewhat predictably inconsistent at the same time.  The Diamondbacks have a reasonable expectation of what a healthy Gurriel can deliver as a floor, with hopes that his ceiling might reach higher in a new environment.  Gurriel could also benefit to some extent if the D’Backs use their left-handed hitting outfielders (i.e. Alek Thomas, Jake McCarthy, Dominic Fletcher) to provide some shield against right-handed pitching, though Gurriel’s career splits are pretty even.

2023 is the final season of Gurriel’s initial seven-year contract, and a clause in the deal makes him automatically eligible for free agency next winter even though Gurriel will be short of six years of MLB service time.  The outfielder will be 30 on Opening Day 2024, so he can still offer some prime years to an interesting team on the open market, but much will be determined by how Gurriel performs this season in Arizona.

Some Toronto fans were surprised that the Blue Jays had to include both Moreno and Gurriel to pry Varsho away from the D’Backs, yet that could reflect what relatively modest trade value Gurriel had around the league, even for a player owed only $5.4MM in 2023.  Even from the Diamondbacks’ perspective, while Gurriel’s inclusion was a factor in finally getting the trade over the finish line, the still-existing outfield surplus within the organization means that Arizona probably sees Gurriel as a one-year rental.  If the D’Backs are again out of contention by the trade deadline, Gurriel might be a prime candidate to be shipped elsewhere.

If Gurriel matches only his 2021-22 numbers, a two-year free agent deal might be his max, and a lot of teams might not be willing to go beyond one guaranteed year.  As we’ve seen this offseason, teams are willing to pay big for superstars, or pay big (either in free agent dollars or in trade return) for younger players with potential to break out.  Clubs are less willing to open their wallets for “just” solid production, thus leaving Gurriel in danger of being squeezed in the market unless he has a quality platform season.

Gurriel could point to older brother Yuli as an example of how later-career production runs in the family.  However, the younger Gurriel will likely need to stay healthy and (perhaps significantly) out-perform his past Toronto production in order to really capitalize on his upcoming trip to the open market.

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