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Why Gio Urshela should start the year as the Yankees’ third baseman

His hold on the job isn’t firm, but it’s his for now.

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Third base hasn’t exactly been a stable position for the Yankees over the last decade. As Alex Rodriguez declined, the team has shuffled through Chase Headley, Todd Frazier and Brandon Drury before landing on Miguel Andujar, who looked to be the long-term keeper at the hot corner.

Instead, a serious shoulder injury led to Andujar yielding his job in 2019 to temporary stopgap Gio Urshela, who turned out to be a far better player than anyone could have predicted. Urshela became one of the Yankees’ most valuable players last year thanks to his clutch contributions, both at the plate and in the field.

Now, Andujar is healthy heading into 2020, while Urshela is looking to build on his breakout year. However, the third baseman’s job is probably only big enough for one of them, and GM Brian Cashman seems to have a favorite for the position. “It’s Gio’s job to lose,” Cashman explained to Mike Lupica, “the same as it was Andujar’s job to lose until he got hurt.”

This is the second time this offseason Cashman has said this, and at this point, it’s hard to argue with his logic. While Andujar didn’t do anything to lose the job other than get injured, it’s only fair to give Urshela the first crack at the job after he did such a great job last year. Once the season gets started, it’ll go up for grabs anyway.

In the short term, though, there is enough evidence to suggest that Urshela can sustain his production in 2020. Although he never had a track record as a big hitter, the way he succeeded for the Yankees last year should give the team hope that he can maintain it moving forward.

Urshela’s best attribute as a hitter is his high contact ability. He doesn’t strike out much (18.3% strikeout rate) and his 80.3% contact rate was the third-best total on the team last year. He also made high-quality contact; he owned a line-drive rate of 29.8% and only made soft contact 12.8% of the time—both marks better than league average.

The 28-year-old’s low walk rate (5.3%) looks like a drawback, and truthfully, there isn’t much plate discipline in his approach. He loves to swing early and often, and doesn’t have the best strike zone awareness. Urshela swings 56% of the time, and he also chases frequently. However, Urshela makes contact on 70% of his chases, which minimizes their impact. Although he expands the zone often, he isn’t whiffing or making weak contact in the process, so his lack of plate discipline isn’t a huge problem.

Of course, that could change. Urshela’s .349 BABIP is at a point where it might be a bit too high. If some of his batted balls that were base hits last year start to find gloves, we might be able to point to his plate discipline as a culprit. However, we’re not at that point yet. Right now Urshela has shown that his bat can stand up as an everyday third baseman, and the Yankees are hoping that will carry over to next season.

Defensively, there’s no contest between Urshela and Andujar. Although Urshela’s performance is merely viewed as average by metrics, the eye test paints a better picture. One thing’s for sure: both traditionalists and analytics gurus can agree that Urshela’s fielding is leaps and bounds better than Andujar’s.

The Yankees shouldn’t give up on Andujar by any means, but right now, third base should belong to Urshela. Andujar certainly has a higher potential than Urshela, but also a lower floor. The team will find opportunities for him, and the two players can likely coexist to start the 2020 season.

As time goes on and the Yankees get a sense of where Andujar is at following a lengthy injury rehab, they may have to decide between Urshela and Andujar. In the meantime though, it’s Urshela’s job to lose. It will be exciting to see what he does with it.