Pressure question Gio Urshela must answer in Yankees’ Year 2

Part 26 in a series analyzing the New York Yankees.

As the 2019 season started, the Yankees were anxious to see if Miguel Andujar’s winter work to improve his defense at third base had paid off.

Based on a season in which Andujar finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year race to the Angels’ two-way player Shohei Ohtani, the Yankees were ecstatic over Andujar’s bat. An uptick in the field would be a nice complement.

Meanwhile, they had watched Gio Urshela make eye-popping plays at third during the exhibition schedule, but had questions whether he would hit enough to be a regular. He was a career .225 hitter in 466 big-league at-bats with a .589 OPS in Cleveland and Toronto from 2015-18 and finished the 2018 season with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the Yankees’ Triple-A team, after being acquired from the Blue Jays for cash in August.

Yet, three games into the season, Andujar suffered a strained right shoulder, went on the injured list and returned but eventually had season-ending surgery.

Staying inside, the Yankees promoted Urshela. They understood he would provide a defensive upgrade over Andujar at third, but were aware of Urshela’s lack of hitting at a position that craves a productive bat.

Gio Urshela
Gio UrshelaAP

By now, anybody remotely connected to the Yankees knows not only did Urshela shine at third, he more than made up for the absence of Andujar’s lethal bat by hitting .314 with 21 homers, 74 RBIs and an .889 OPS.

If DJ LeMahieu, who finished fourth in the AL MVP race, and Gleyber Torres, who landed in 17th place in the same chase, were the Yankees’ MVPs last season, a strong case could be made that Urshela was third.

With Andujar healthy, the third-base job was Urshela’s to lose when spring training opened in February. The body of work overshadowed a late-season slump in which Urshela hit .167 (5-for-30) with a homer, two RBIs and a woeful .531 OPS.

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Now, the question attached to the 28-year-old Urshela has been asked of countless players who come from nowhere to have a big year: Was it a fluke? And how much of the improved numbers were due to the ball being tighter, which helped all hitters?

Based on what Urshela didn’t do in his first 167 big-league games, it would be difficult to admit he is ready for a run of success at the plate.

“Nobody could have expected that. He never hit before and out of the blue he made an adjustment and all of a sudden he is a player,” an NL scout said of Urshela, who showed a glimpse of what he did in 2019 while with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre at the end of the previous season, when he hit .307 with a .815 OPS in 27 games with help from Phil Plantier. The Triple-A hitting coach got Urshela to use his lower half more than he had been to generate power.

“The Yankees fell into that one,” the scout said.

Most impressive to the talent evaluator was the fact Urshela was dependable when it counted.

“He got big hits, he was clutch all year,” the scout said, pointing to Urshela hitting .333 (36-for-108) with runners in scoring position.

At 28, Urshela has 908 big-league at-bats which is shy of the 1,500 benchmark used to determine what kind of a hitter he is and will be.

Should Urshela, who was scheduled to make $2.457 million this season, not hit, the Yankees can turn back to Andujar and have LeMahieu and Tyler Wade to play third.

However, they would like Urshela to at least resemble the player he was a year ago, which would allow them to move Andujar around and keep his bat in play.

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