It’s an understatement to say Gio Urshela is no longer the diamond-in-the-rough the Yankees acquired on the cheap. As my colleague Tom Korsnowski pointed out on Friday, Urshela’s defensive strengths were always evident. But following his rapid development as a hitter since joining the Yankees’ major-league roster in 2019, he should really be counted among the team’s most valuable players on both sides of the baseball.
In 2020, Urshela proved he can shine in October, too. From hitting a grand slam against the Indians in the Wild Card Series to initiating some of the more impressive double plays fans will ever witness, Urshela came through in the clutch and authored the Yankees’ most memorable moments of this year’s postseason.
The Yankees signed the third baseman, who turned 29 earlier this month, to a one year, $2.475 million contract this past January. Urshela has three full seasons of team control remaining before he hits free agency in 2024.
Due to uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic (namely, the difficulty of predicting ticket sales when it’s unknown whether fans will be able to attend games in 2021), it’s unclear how flexible the Yankees’ spending budget will be in the offseason. That uncertainty is likely to remain until an effective COVID-19 vaccine is developed and approved.
And while the front office has more urgent decisions to make regarding whether they can afford to re-sign AL batting champion DJ LeMahieu, or starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, this offseason could also be an opportunity for the Yankees to secure an elite player like Urshela for a longer term.
IT'S A GRAND SLAM! Gio Urshela! The most happy fella! pic.twitter.com/Ehp6i7m4PX— John Sterling Calls (@JSterlingCalls) October 1, 2020
The team’s window of contention to win a World Series won’t stay open indefinitely. Before it closes, the Yankees must decide how they want to construct their roster and which players are integral to the organization’s success. A lot hinges on whether or not LeMahieu re-signs with the team, since his presence will also determine the team’s plan for where to play Gleyber Torres; should the Yankees leave him at shortstop, or slide Torres back to his natural position at second base?
A number of questions concerning how to design the Yankees’ infield hang in the balance right now. That Urshela brings immense value at third base and can help the Yankees win isn’t one of them. Offering Urshela a multi-year contract extension before he enters free agency, like the Yankees did with Aaron Hicks and Luis Severino in 2019, is a move the organization should make if they’re serious about wanting to win a championship with the team’s current core.
Before considering the pros and cons of offering Urshela a longer contract before he becomes a free agent, there’s the obvious question: how much would a four or five-year extension cost? Can the Yankees afford to offer a multi-year extension to Urshela, when the price to keep DJ LeMahieu is likely to be high? Let’s take a closer look at what an extension for Urshela could look like, and what the Yankees stand to gain from offering him one.
Judging from his performance during the 2020 season, Urshela will probably receive a nice raise on this year’s $2.475M full season salary, but it’s difficult to gauge by how much. MLB’s economic situation is not what it was seven months ago. It’s impossible to discern the extent of the Yankees’ financial losses this year, and that will be the case for a while.
The terms of a multi-year extension for Urshela largely depend on if the Yankees believe he can continue to produce the way he has for the last two seasons. It also matters what the Yankees think will happen with the quality of Urshela’s fielding as he gets older. Especially for position players, the game is getting younger, and Urshela’s age (as a late bloomer, he’s currently on track to become a free agent when he’s 32 years old) should be a major consideration.
Luckily, third base is the one position in baseball where players enjoy a relatively late peak. According to contract data on Spotrac, it’s the only position where players, on average, tend to be more valuable at age 29 than at 25.
According to FanGraphs data, Urshela had a 3.1 WAR during the 2019 season and a 1.6 WAR in 2020. This year he’s been named as a Gold Glove finalist and among third basemen, his .992 fielding percentage was the best in the majors. His 14-game hitting streak this year was the longest by any Yankee. There aren’t any obvious red flags in his injury history and the stints he has spent on the IL have been relatively brief.
If the Yankees cannot offer LeMahieu the salary he deserves, or if he is lured away by another team’s offer, the Yankees’ infield will experience significant turnover in 2021. Offering Urshela a four or five-year extension will not only help the Yankees retain a bit of consistency in the field, but it will also ensure the team has one of the best third basemen in the game for the next couple years.
Having Gio stick around in the Bronx is a win-win: the move would save money on the Yankees’ end in the long term and for Urshela a contract extension offers security that is virtually non-existent in today’s uncertain free agent market. Whether or not the Yankees offer him an extension, Urshela will be critical to the Yankees’ success in 2021. In a season marked by unpredictability, uncertainty and volatile performances, Urshela’s consistency and poise was both oddly comforting and fun to watch.