A bit of bad luck struck the Houston Astros last week, barely into the beginning of spring training. Yulieski Gurriel had to have the hook of the hamate bone – a small bone in the hand broken by any number of baseball players every year – surgically removed. He is expected to be out for five to six weeks, leaving the Astros without him to start the season.
The Astros were going to be without him for the first five games of the season due to his suspension for a racist gesture during the World Series last year, but coming back from injury is different than sitting on the bench. Gurriel’s great contribution is offense, and hand injuries can have a longer-term impact on a player’s ability to swing the bat.
However, while in the long term any damage to Gurriel’s production might hurt Houston, the Astros are equipped to handle his brief absence both offensively and defensively. Mr. Utility, Marwin Gonzalez, will be the natural fit to step into that first-base role, and unlike the “traditional” utility role player, Gonzalez can provide meaningful offense. Gonzalez is currently expected to fill an outfield role, leaving a temporary gap there, but Houston has some options. Josh Reddick could slide over to left, with George Springer taking his place in right, and Derek Fisher or Jake Marisnick (whoever has a better spring) filling in at center field.
Gurriel is unlikely to be out long enough to justify bringing up any of Houston’s younger prospects, such as Kyle Tucker. A.J. Reed could be an option for a short-term replacement. Reed is having an excellent spring training, but when Gurriel returns, there won’t be room for him. Reed has struggled in his previous major league appearances.
However, if Gurriel’s recovery hits a snag, we could see Reed no matter if Houston decides to start Gonzalez as its everyday first baseman. A secondary option for the Astros would be Tyler White, who is also having a strong spring training. There’s even the possibility that the Astros will decide to stick with Gonzalez at first and bring up Tucker to handle outfield duties. That’s unlikely, but if there’s both concern about Gurriel’s long-term health and the team’s position in the American League West standings, it could happen.
If things don’t progress, there are a few options on the free-agent market. Mark Reynolds could neatly fill the first-base slot while Gurriel recovers, or if the Astros decide it’s easier to juggle the outfield over the infield, Jon Jay has yet to sign with a team. Jay has the advantage in recent on-base ability over Reynolds, though Reynolds has the power the Astros may be looking for.
The biggest thing here is that Houston has the depth to make this no big deal. Unlike previous years, when one injury toppled the whole house of cards, it will only take some minor shuffling to hold together this highly competitive team. While it’s certain that this team will be better with a healthy, productive Gurriel — and despite the lurking Angels and Mariners — this one injury, at a convenient time of year, won’t derail them.