Ever since the Yankees moved Gleyber Torres to second base in the middle of the pennant race, shortstop immediately became the Yankees’ biggest hole. For the final two weeks of the season, the team penciled in their starting third baseman at the position simply because he was the only starting-caliber player capable of fielding it, but from that point on, it became apparent to everybody that the Yankees were going to be players in the historic shortstop market that hit free agent this winter.
Apparent to everybody, that is, except the Yankees, who have opted to let Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Javier Báez sign elsewhere in the American League and who have reportedly “soured” on Trevor Story. And while there’s still a hope that they might make a play for AL fWAR leader and Platinum Glove winner Carlos Correa, it seems more likely that the team will use Aaron Judge’s extension and the abundance of shortstop prospects in the system as an excuse to forego to the top of the market and opt for a stopgap to man the position.
Here at Pinstripe Alley, we have already profiled the “top” of the stopgap market, free agent Andrelton Simmons and Texas Rangers infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and in the coming days we will also add to these two other options such as José Iglesias. None of these possible targets, however, inspire much confidence — none of these options have seemed to be better than what Urshela did this September. In fact, had Urshela not already been in pinstripes, we might even have explored him as a stopgap option that the Yankees might pursue. So let’s do just that, and see how the slick-fielding third baseman profiles as a shortstop.
Since taking over at the hot corner early in 2019, Urshela has quietly become one of the better-hitting infielders out there, thanks in large part to back-to-back seasons with a wRC+ above 130. Because of his slightly-below-league average 2021, Urshela’s 118 wRC+ since the start of 2019 ranks ninth among shortstops, right ahead of Jorge Polanco and Trevor Story. His 132 wRC+ the previous two seasons ranked among the league’s upper-echelon shortstops in that stretch, behind just Fernando Tatís Jr. (who might not stick at the position) and Xander Bogaerts, and right around Tim Anderson and Trea Turner. At the plate, clearly, Urshela has the potential to match up — assuming he can recapture at least some of his 2019-2020 form, that is.
That, unfortunately, is a little easier said than done. I’m not going to rehash all the points that Peter dove into for Urshela’s end-of-year report card, but this quote provides a gist of what he said:
Much of Urshela’s regression can be explained by a nosedive in quality of contact. He lost about two mph in exit average velocity relative to the previous two seasons. Urshela also batted at a launch angle roughly five degrees lower than the previous two seasons. The result: a career-high 47.8 percent groundball rate at the expense of fewer line drives and fly balls.
At this point in time, returning Urshela’s bat to his 2019-2020 self is certainly near the top of the list for new hitting coach Dillon Lawson, who was, perhaps not uncoincidentally, the Yankees’ minor league hitting coordinator when Urshela first came to the organization in August 2018. If he does so, Urshela suddenly becomes a plausible stopgap, a wRC+ in the 120-130 range makes a below-average defender at shortstop bearable.
And make no mistake, Urshela will almost certainly be below-average at the position. In limited action in 2021, the defensive metrics were actually pretty happy with his performance: Statcast graded him at exactly 0 Outs Above Average in 113 as a shortstop, while FanGraphs scored him at -1 Defensive Runs Saved and -1.2 UZR/150. As Esteban noted back in September while breaking down film of Urshela at the position, No. 29 has good instincts in the infield and has good mechanics, but he doesn’t have the athleticism you want at the position, and his instincts/mechanics look more like a third baseman playing shortstop than a natural shortstop.
Going forward, having Gio Urshela as the Opening Day shortstop should absolutely not be Plan A for the Yankees. That plan ought to be one of the premier shortstops current available, such as Correa or (to a lesser extent) Story. Urshela’s ability to man the position, however, does give Brian Cashman some flexibility when seeking infield help, freeing him from needing somebody like Simmons or Kiner-Falefa — read: less-than-good baseball players — simply because they can play shortstop. The team could, hypothetically, acquire a third baseman instead (e.g. Kris Bryant, Kyle Seager) and make Urshela the starting shortstop, with the hope that one of the prospects unseats him sooner rather than later.
It’s far from a perfect plan, but if the Yankees are dead-set on a stopgap solution, it might be better than the alternatives available.