Did anyone bat an eye when the Yankees acquired Gio Urshela from the Blue Jays last year? Certainly not me. The third basemen went from late-2018 minor league depth acquisition, to minor league free agent, to non-roster invitee in spring training 2019, to Miguel Andújar’s injury replacement, to key cog in the lineup by late April. What a whirlwind for the 28 year-old infielder who’s almost certainly now in the team’s long-term plans.
Should we have seen this coming?
The Yankees didn’t miss a beat offensively after losing Andújar, which was a very pleasant surprise. Urshela stepped right in and raked in April: .345/.409/.500 (143 wRC+). He had a similarly strong May, but fell off in June. But the pixie dust didn’t wear off. Gio rebounded to post monster numbers in July (169 wRC+) and August (183 wRC+). Urshela did cool off in September and the playoffs, but overall, he had a great offensive campaign. He finished with a .314/.355/.534 (132 wRC+, 121 DRC+) in 476 plate appearances. Where on earth did this breakout come from?
Spring training stats are supposed to be meaningless. Yet, perhaps Urshela’s numbers were a harbinger of things to come. In Grapefruit League play, Gio hit .321/.345/.679 in 29 plate appearances. That’s an incredibly small sample size and perhaps very convenient to point out in hindsight, but I also have a spring training anecdote about his performance. I distinctly remember listening to a game on the radio in March during which John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman were gushing about his performance. I remember chalking it up to Gio just being one of those guys John and Suzyn fall in love with for no good reason. Well, they were right, and I was very wrong.
It was pretty easy to write off Urshela’s Grapefruit League performance considering his lackluster history. He was comfortably below average at the dish between Triple-A and the majors for both Cleveland and Toronto since 2018. He did pick things back up for Cleveland in Triple-A in ’18 before heading to Toronto, though he scuffled in the Jays’ highest minor league level. However, once the Yankees nabbed him, Urshela got things going in Scranton. He closed 2018 with a 129 wRC+ in 107 plate appearances at the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate.
It’s not like Urshela rode a bunch of batted ball luck to success, either. Sure, his .349 BABIP is a bit inflated and his actual wOBA (.369) exceeded his xwOBA (.353), but the underlying numbers are there. You can see that with his strong xwOBA I just pointed out, or take a look at his impressive exit velocity (90.5 MPH). The adjustments he made with Plantier appear to have made him a legitimate force at the dish.
A defensive upgrade at the hot corner
Urshela was long known to be a defense-first infielder. Though defensive metrics seemingly weren’t enamored with Urshela prior to this year, he frequently made highlight reels with plays like this:
Meanwhile, the guy Urshela replaced on the Yankees had one big flaw: fielding. Andújar gave back a lot of his offensive production in the field and had been widely lambasted by scouts and advanced metrics alike. So at the very least, Urshela gave the Yankees some defensive stability at the hot corner. That he hit like Miggy was the icing on the cake.
Urshela didn’t win a gold glove at the hot corner, nor was he a runner up, but it’s no shame to finish behind guys like Matt Chapman (the winner) and Alex Bregman.
Interestingly, the numbers didn’t match the eye test. Both DRS and UZR pegged Urshela to be below average defensively. FRAA had him easily above average, which fits well into my confirmation bias. Regardless of where the numbers stand, there’s no question that he played the position better than Andújar could have.
Andújar is expected to be fully recovered for next season, but Urshela isn’t going anywhere. His improved hitting, buoyed by changes made when the Yankees acquired him, makes him a long-term option at the hot corner. We may have a position battle in March, but I’d guess it’s Urshela’s spot to lose. Miggy has to prove he’s all the way back from shoulder surgery and he’s not a good fielder to boot. DH or first base may be his calling card in the long run.
Does that make Urshela the Yankees’ third baseman of the future (and present)? Quite possibly. He’s not a free agent for four more seasons, just like Andújar. He’ll have to sustain his performance next season to hold off Miggy, but there are plenty of signs that Urshela is for real. The only real way the Yankees could upgrade at third base this winter is if they go out and sign Anthony Rendon, but that’s unlikely to happen.