Yankees manager Aaron Boone had a tough choice to make. Last season’s runner-up in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting was coming off the injured list, while his replacement had emerged as arguably the MVP of the team.
Boone started Miguel Andujar at third base as soon as he was activated on May 4th, opting to give Gio Urshela a well-deserved day off. But Andujar made two miscues in the field, giving him a total of three errors in three games at third base on the year. The Yankees skipper wasted no time in announcing that Urshela would remain as the team’s starting third baseman, while Andujar would get reps at DH.
It was a bold and somewhat surprising move by the second-year manager. For as long as I can remember, conventional thinking was that a player couldn’t lose his job due to injury. Countless MLB managers clung to this philosophy, as did head coaches in the other major sports.
This “conventional thinking” wasn’t always prevalent, though. Just ask Wally Pipp. So it was refreshing to see Boone discard it.
To be clear, I’m not an anti-Andujar person. As a 23-year-old last year, Andujar tied Fred Lynn’s AL rookie doubles record set in 1975. Andujar also led the Yankees with a .297 batting average, and was second on the team with 27 home runs, 92 RBI, and a .855 OPS. Anyone who followed the team on a day-to-day basis knows how important he was to the Yankees offense.
Unfortunately, his defense was another story. Andujar was statistically one of the worst fielders in baseball at any position last year. Still, I remained both grateful for his indispensable offensive contributions, and optimistic that he could and would take steps to improve in the field. To me, his effervescent personality and can-do attitude is a big plus on the team. Heading into this season, I really felt that Andujar might have used his success last year as a springboard to something even greater.
Sadly, he suffered a torn labrum diving back into third base during the Yankees’ third game of the season and was out for over a month. In the interim, Urshela entrenched himself at the hot corner — becoming an important contributor on both sides of the ball.
Over 33 games, Urshela leads the Yankees with a .330 batting average, while ranking second with an .874 OPS. The 27-year-old has gotten countless clutch hits for the Yankees, all while providing Gold Glove-caliber play at third base.
In short, Urshela earned the starting job. More importantly, the Yankees have come to depend on him. It wouldn’t have been fair to the team if Boone removed him from third base because of some unwritten rule.
Andujar has since aggravated the injury, gone back on the IL, and yesterday announced that he was opting to undergo season-ending surgery to repair his shoulder. So Boone’s weeks-old announcement that he would continue with Urshela as the starting third baseman might seem academic, but it’s not.
Boone sent a couple of important messages to his players and to the fans alike. First, playing time is to be earned. I’ve seen far too many managers stick with slumping players because of their name, contract, or because the manager himself simply didn’t want to make an unpopular decision. Being liked, after all, is paramount to some people. Not to Boone, apparently, which is good.
He also let it be known that he isn’t going allow himself to boxed in by someone else’s “unwritten rules” or “conventional thinking” that he had no hand in creating. I think it’s so important to demonstrate that kind of leadership.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future for the Yankees at third base. I sincerely hope that Urshela continues producing a Thurman Munson-like MVP year. I also hope that Andujar returns from his surgery stronger than ever, ready to compete with Urshela for the starting job at third base next spring. Competition, after all, is part of the game. It often brings out the best in everyone involved.
Whatever happens with the two players involved in this particular situation, Boone’s handling of it is exemplary. He once again showed why he was the right choice to manage the Yankees.