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Can Gio Urshela be the Yankees’ backup shortstop?

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Urshela’s ability to handle shortstop in a pinch might just be the solution to the Yankees’ roster crunch.

New York Yankees v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

You may have missed it, with the game not being on television, but the Yankees put out an intriguing defensive alignment in yesterday’s game against the Detroit Tigers. Gio Urshela, the team’s primary third baseman, started at shortstop. Manager Aaron Boone provided a fairly straightforward explanation for the move, saying that the team wanted to see if he could handle it “in a pinch” since he already gets some reps there when the defense shifts.

But could there be more to the move than just preparation for an emergency? The Yankees are expected to carry a four-man bench, with spots already set aside for Kyle Higashioka (or another backup catcher, if he is injured) and Brett Gardner. Tyler Wade, Mike Tauchman, Jay Bruce, and Derek Dietrich are in the mix for the final two spots. At the moment, Wade has the upper hand for one of them, because the team needs somebody to back up Gleyber Torres at shortstop. However, Urshela being able to take on this role would give the Yankees greater flexibility and make it more palatable to carry Bruce or Dietrich on the Opening Day roster, or would allow the team to hold off on waiving Tauchman.

Of course, for that to be an option, Urshela needs to be able to play the position competently. He has played there sparingly over his career, with only 13 games at the major League level and 37 in the minors for a grand total of 50 games at the professional level before yesterday. In this admittedly microscopic sample size, the returns are not exactly great, as in those 13 MLB games he has accrued -2 DRS, -2 OAA, and -7.3 UZR/150. That was three years ago though, and while he has not been penciled in as the shortstop since then, he has lined up at the position due to the shift (the entire reason that this experiment is even occurring).

Here’s Urshela’s Statcast Outs Above Average detailed visuals:

It’s obviously a small sample size — only 18 attempts in, to use Statcast’s terminology, the “role of the SS,” but he handled it well, with +2% success rate added. To put that in perspective, Torres has accrued 0% success rate added in 2019 and -1% in 2020. And while that is very much a small sample size, it matches Urshela’s his performance for much of his career well, as he posted a +3% success rate added in 18 attempts in 2017 and -1% in 52 attempts in 2019. The 2018 season is a troubling exception, as he posted a -8% added in 2018. All of this combines to a career -1% success rate added in 115 attempts over his career.

Is that a good enough value for a backup shortstop? It’s certainly in the ballpark of Wade and Thairo Estrada, who have a combined -1% success rate added in 90 attempts over their careers. And considering how much better Urshela hits than those two (133 OPS+ over the last two years, compared to 76 OPS+ and Estrada’s 65 OPS+ in that same time), he’d provide much more value there. At the very least, he seemed comfortable there yesterday, saying “It felt really good; better than I thought...I feel really good for my first day.” In the limited footage that we were able to get, he certainly didn’t look too out of place either.

Ultimately, I don’t expect to see the Yankees to use Urshela as the primary backup shortstop for most of the season, and a utility infielder such as Wade or Estrada will probably fill that role for the bulk of the season. Early in the season, however, the team could take advantage of the abundance of off days — the Yankees have four off days in the first 19 days of the season — to forego a traditional backup infielder and open the season with Wade at the alternate site, freeing up a roster spot for either Bruce or Tauchman (in this scenario, Dietrich probably has the other spot in order to play third while Urshela is a short).

After that point...well, as Yankees fans are all too aware after the last two seasons, roster crunches always seem to have a way of sorting themselves out. By using Urshela at shortstop for that first month, the team can at least hold onto as much depth as possible to prepare for those eventualities.