As spring training quickly approaches, the New York Yankees told Gio Urshela that he will be, barring injury or a disastrous March, the team’s starting third baseman. Since there is also a logjam an the designated hitter spot, there is no obvious path to playing time for 2018 Rookie of the Year runner-up Miguel Andujar.
The 24-year-old Andujar had a great debut, slashing .297/.328/.527 with a .361 wOBA, a 130 wRC+ and 2.8 fWAR. He hit 27 homers and drove in 92 runs. However, he missed most of 2019 due to a shoulder injury.
Gio Urshela took advantage of the opportunity and ran away with the third base job. He ended up batting .314/.355/.534 with a .369 wOBA and a 132 wRC+, totaling 3.1 fWAR. He did all of this while playing quality defense at the hot corner, something Andujar couldn’t come close to approximating the season before.
It’s not that Andujar was bad at third when he played, it’s that he was among the worst in the league. In 2018, he ran a -16.0 UZR and a -24.5 UZR/150, and if we add the -25 DRS he registered, there was no single positive indicator about his glove.
Now, prior to the 2020 season, both men are healthy and eager to earn playing time. The Yankees, as a result, told Andujar to learn two new positions: first base and left field. Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ GM, had hinted at it in November. He said back then:
“If Gio [Urshela] continues to hold [third base], you’re going to want to see if you can find a way to get that bat into the lineup, whether it’s, ‘Can he play first? Can he play the outfield?’ You start playing those mind games, it’s anything that you want to do, but I’ve been around long enough, when a bat’s good enough …”
Andujar’s bat is, well, good enough. It’s a good thing that the Yankees are pursuing creative ways to include keep his offense in the lineup.
At the GM meetings, Cashman brought up how they used rookie shortstop Alfonso Soriano to replace Derek Jeter (who was out with a minor injury) in 2001. When the captain returned, Soriano played some left field, and when the Bombers had enough of Chuck Knoblauch’s throwing errors, Soriano took over the keystone. Soriano finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting process that year.
We can draw some similarities between Andujar and Soriano, starting with their athleticism. Soriano was faster, but Andujar’s athleticism is somewhat underrated; Andujar ranked in the 77th percentile for sprint speed last year, and boasts a strong arm. Even so, both of them were very bad fielding a specific position, as Soriano struggled at second, while Andujar has floundered at the hot corner.
Historical evidence of a similar situation
Soriano’s experience can remind us that a position change can benefit a player. Well after he left the Yankees, the Washington Nationals tried him at left field after five full seasons at second base with other clubs. Advanced fielding metrics weren’t available for the whole five years, but consider this: in his last two seasons at the keystone, 2004 and 2005 (both with the Texas Rangers) he had -10 and -26 DRS marks and registered -7.1 and -15.7 UZR and -7.4 and -13.6 UZR/150, respectively.
In his first and only season with the Nats, he recorded a 18 DRS, 6.6 UZR and 5.4 UZR/150 playing the outfield. After that, he went to the Chicago Cubs, and he was even better for two more years, at least according to the advanced numbers.
In 2007, also in left field, Soriano had a 17 DRS and a 39.2 UZR/150. His UZR was 32.0. A year later, he registered a 2 DRS, a 26.5 UZR/150 and a 16.4 UZR. Judging by UZR and UZR/150, he was a hair above average for the rest of his career in the outfield. And while DRS basically disagrees (you can see Soriano’s advanced fielding stats here,) he was at least respectable there.
Soriano led the league in outfield assists in 2006 and 2007. Yes, he had a rocket arm, just like pre-surgery Andujar. The former Yankee had a reputation for being a bad defender and didn’t always take the best routes, but he was passable in the outfield. He wasn’t passable at second. Likewise, Andujar has the potential to be passable in left field or at first base. He wasn’t passable at third when he played.
What’s next for Andujar?
Of the two positions that the Yankees want their young slugger to learn, the outfield could bring the best out of him but also provides the more difficult challenge. Hunting down fly balls requires quick and efficient reads and a quick first step. There are different types of elements that can affect the movement of the batted ball, such as topspin or backspin, that he’ll have to acclimate to while reading fly balls.
However, as the Alfonso Soriano career path can tell us, there is light at the end of the tunnel for Miguel Andujar. He may need reps in spring training and maybe even the minor leagues, but exploring a position change can increase his versatility and earn him some at-bats. For the Yankees, it is a way to showcase him as a possible trade bait for the future, or to try and generate another versatile player for the roster. Everybody wins. Can Andujar pull it off?