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Coming off an impressive run to the World Series, Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen said from the start of the offseason that he had a lot of work to do this winter.
So far, he has been more active than most. In November, the Diamondbacks added much-needed stability at third base, landing veteran Eugenio Suárez in a trade with the Seattle Mariners. Earlier this month, they acquired a key piece for the starting rotation, signing left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez to a four-year contract. On Sunday, they reportedly added another name to the list.
According to multiple reports, the Diamondbacks re-signed outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to a three-year deal worth $42 million. The contract includes an opt-out after the second year plus a club option for a fourth year.
Gurriel, 30, was acquired last winter in a trade that sent Daulton Varsho to the Toronto Blue Jays. Gurriel’s first season in Arizona was a good one.
In a career-high 592 plate appearances, he slashed .263/.309/.463 with 24 homers, 82 RBI and 2.1 fWAR in 2023. He also had arguably the best defensive season of his career, amassing a career-high 14 defensive runs saved in 778 innings in left field.
Combined with the team’s $80-million investment in Rodriguez, the Diamondbacks have now dished out $122 million in free agency this winter, the third-highest total in baseball.
The reported signing of Gurriel comes less than a week after managing general partner Ken Kendrick told reporters that the Diamondbacks would enter the 2024 season with the highest payroll in franchise history. “We have more to do,” Kendrick said.
With Gurriel set to make $10 million in 2024 according to Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic, it appears that this deal puts the team over that threshold. The Opening Day payroll now sits around $136 million, according to data from Fangraphs’ Roster Resource. The Opening Day figure was around $131 million in 2018, according to Cot’s Contracts, when the team set its previous record for payroll.
Gurriel spent most of his time in left field in 2023, and he figures to wind up there the majority of the time in 2024. He will likely get some at-bats at designated hitter as well; how many depends on whether the Diamondbacks add a full-time DH type in the coming weeks. Several reports have indicated that they are seeking to do just that.
Prior to this reported reunion with Gurriel, the Diamondbacks’ outfield figured to consist only of left-handed hitters, including Corbin Carroll, Alek Thomas, Jake McCarthy and Dominic Fletcher.
When asked about the possibility of an all-lefty outfield at the winter meetings, Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen did not rule it out.
“If the depth and the rest of the lineup was more skewed right handed,” Hazen said, “that’s the way it would be able to happen.”
Nonetheless, starting three left-handed hitters in the outfield every time out against a left-handed starter would never be ideal. In that regard, Gurriel’s return is a big help. He slashed .301/.363/.452 against lefties in 2023, and has a .290/.329/.483 line against them in his career.
Why Gurriel could age better than most
Given that this contract spans Gurriel’s age 30-32 seasons, it would be unreasonable to expect Gurriel to be as productive at the end of the deal as he is now. However, Gurriel has several things going for him.
First, Gurriel has been one of the more consistent hitters in baseball over the years. By OPS+, he has been at least six percent above average each season since making his big-league debut in 2018.
Granted, it is ironic to praise Gurriel’s consistency given that he is one of baseball’s streakiest hitters. This year, he posted the fourth-best wRC+ among qualified MLB hitters in May, followed by the fourth-worst in July. (As with OPS+, league average for wRC+ is 100.)
Nonetheless, while Gurriel’s inconsistency month to month might be non-ideal, his year-to-year reliability seemingly bodes well for the future.
Another factor in Gurriel’s favor is the defensive improvements he made in 2023. Not only did his range grade out better than ever, but, according to Statcast, Gurriel’s arm strength ranked in the 77th percentile. That figure is in line with where it had been the past couple seasons. Gurriel still has one of the better arms in the league for a left fielder.
The Diamondbacks have developed a good reputation for outfield defense, and it comes as no surprise that Gurriel seemingly improved the moment he joined the team. Perhaps more improvements could come in 2024.
Finally, while hitters do not necessarily age in a linear fashion, Gurriel showed few signs of aging in 2023. His whiff rate was a career-low 18.7 percent. His strikeout rate was the second-best of his career at 17.4 percent. His swinging strike rate (SwStr%) was also the lowest it has ever been.
According to a 2012 study from Fangraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman, aging hitters generally show a decrease in contact rate on pitches outside the zone. That makes sense since hitters with declining bat speed have to cheat more to get to fastballs, thus making them more likely to whiff at secondaries outside the zone.
In 2023, Gurriel’s contact rate on pitches outside the zone, abbreviated O-contact%, was actually a career-high 70 percent — roughly eight percentage points above the league average.
While Gurriel’s contact ability neared its peak in 2023, he also continued to do damage when putting the ball in play. Gurriel’s 46 percent hard-hit rate was right in line with his career norms. His average exit velocity dipped from 2022 to 2023, but his 2023 mark was identical to that of 2021.
Gurriel also showed more power in 2023 than he did the year prior, belting 24 homers this past season compared to just five in 2022. That uptick was not necessarily unforeseen.
In 2022, Gurriel suffered a broken hamate that was not fixed until the end of the season. At the time of the trade, general manager Mike Hazen said that the fracture could explain Gurriel’s zapped power during the 2022 season. In retrospect, that seems to have been the case.
Gurriel found his power again in 2023, not so much by hitting more fly balls — although there was a slight uptick — but by hitting a greater portion of those fly balls to the pull side, where most of his power comes.
In 2023, he pulled 34.5 percent of his fly balls compared to just 17.1 percent in 2022. Nineteen of his 24 homers this past year came on pull-side fly balls.
Granted, Gurriel is still not the hitter he once was. He posted a 123 OPS+ over his first three seasons in the majors compared to a 110 mark over the past three seasons. He makes plenty of contact when he swings, but he still chases pitches out of the zone at an above-average clip and his walk rate has always been below average as a result.
Nonetheless, Gurriel was a productive player in 2023, and it is reasonable to believe that he will continue to be just that.
How Gurriel fits on Diamondbacks’ roster
While the Diamondbacks’ re-signing of Gurriel makes sense in many ways, for the moment, his fit on the roster seems non-ideal.
Gurriel is the type of player whose value is maximized when he is playing in the field. However, as the roster stands now, the best Diamondbacks lineup probably involves Gurriel at designated hitter. That would allow the team to fully leverage the defensive value of other outfielders such as Jake McCarthy and Dominic Fletcher, neither of whom would be best suited at DH.
However, it bears mentioning that Gurriel was more productive offensively in 2023 when playing in the field (.818 OPS) than at DH (.675 OPS). A DH-heavy slate does not seem like a good fit, either.
As mentioned earlier, the Diamondbacks are reportedly interested in bringing in another DH-type bat. They have been linked to J.D. Martinez, Jorge Soler and Justin Turner. Picking up one of those players — or another player in a similar mold — would allow Gurriel to spend the majority of his time in the outfield, where he is best suited. For now, it appears that the Diamondbacks are planning to do just that.
If that proves to be the case, this reunion with Gurriel figures to go down, on paper, as another solid feature of a busy Diamondbacks offseason.
Top photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports
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