Astros infielder Yuli Gurriel knew adjusting to life in a new country wouldn’t be easy. Little did he know that playing baseball in his new home would be just as challenging.
“You have to make your adjustments real quick,” Gurriel said. “The level of play is always really high, lots of requirements so you have to be really prepared.
In a 1-on-1 Spanish interview with KHOU 11 Sports, the former Cuban National Team star opened up about his first year with the Astros.
Gurriel played in 36 games after signing a 5-year, $47.5 million contract in 2016.
The relatively short time in the big leagues gave Gurriel a preview of what to expect in a full campaign which he admits won’t be easy especially considering what he is used to.
“I have experience playing in the Cuban leagues, professionally in Japan and both are pretty strong,” Gurriel said Tuesday during the first day of the 2017 Astros Caravan. “They helped me a lot at the beginning in this league which everyone knows is the most difficult with the best players in the world.”
Gurriel admits the competitions is better, but what was surprising was the rigorous schedule.
“I was only here 30 games and I felt the effects,” Gurriel said. “You basically play every day, finish, and get on a plane, wake-up early the next day at the stadium.”
This realization and subsequent adjustment isn’t something unique to Gurriel. Many Cuban players who come to the United States deal with the new schedule. White Sox star Jose Abreu had a conversation with Gurriel about this very topic last season.
“He told me about it, but to live it, that’s when you realize the huge difference between Cuban baseball and the game here,” Gurriel said. “That time last year really helped this off-season work a lot and much harder to play in a season that is so rigorous like this one.”
Gurriel hit .262 with 3 home runs and 15 runs batted in. His off-season work dealt with improving not only conditioning but adding in the adjustments which he picked up from his time with the big league club at the end of the season.
He knows what’s at stake in 2017.
“The hope is to finish a full season, that’s definitely a goal,” Gurriel said. “It’s 162 games, I’m going to try to play in the most games possible and play well enough to help the team to have a great result to not just qualify but to win a World Series.”
But while he prepares for his first full season in Houston, his heart during Spring Training will still be with what he left behind in Cuba. This season, the World Baseball Classic will be played for the 4th time. Gurriel was on the Cuban National Team for the previous three.
“It’s very strange, very strange and really, it’s kind of sad,” Gurriel said. “To see the World Baseball Classic after participating all three times and to be used playing in these type of big tournaments, it’s tough not to be in it.”
While in Cuba, Gurriel won 9 gold medals, 3 silver and 1 bronze in team competitions around the world. His appearances in the classic introduced him to a new baseball audience, making his absence this time around even more bittersweet.
“I was one of the few players that played in all three classics and was in line to be in a fourth,” Gurriel said. “It wasn’t meant to be. Everyone knows the circumstances, but I will be cheering for them.”
Cheering and preparing for a highly anticipated Astros regular season. He hasn’t been in Houston very long but it's clear to him what these fans want to see.
“The first thing they tell is me is good luck on the season,” Gurriel said. “They are all very optimistic and they know we built a great team this year. They’re asking for a championship, everyone knows Houston has never won and they have high expectations for this season.”
Gurriel took part in the 2017 Astros Caravan, making stops in Galveston and several places en-route to Minute Maid Park where he wrapped up the day participating in a camp for Special Olympics athletes.