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25 Smartest Moves of the Past 25 years: The Gio Urshela purchase

The third baseman came out of, quite literally, nowhere.

Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

You may have noticed that here at PSA, we publish a lot of articles, and that means we need a lot of ideas. One of the ways we get ideas is by writing about transactions — during the season, a trade or waiver claim will usually get a news post, and then some analysis. We like to publish, and yet when Gio Urshela was traded for cash considerations in August 2018, it was such a small deal that I don’t think we published anything about it. What a surprise we were in for.

Trade details: Gio Urshela to the Yankees, $25,000 in cash to the Blue Jays

Transaction Date: August 4, 2018

Career NYY stats: 291 G, 1,092 PA, .292/.335/.480, 63 2B, 41 HR, 118 wRC+, 5.7 fWAR

In Canada, unless it’s a special occasion, our scratch lottery tickets cap out at about $50,000. That’s not a bad payoff for a $2 or $3 ticket, and in his own way, Brian Cashman hit the jackpot on the transaction equivalent of a scratch ticket. To call Urshela a glove-first infielder would be putting it mildly: he had a 57 wRC+ in 500 PAs before joining the Yankees.

Lest you think that he had it figured out in the minors, he started the season with Cleveland’s Triple-A squad, posting an .837 OPS in 42 PA before being picked up by the Jays and floundering, with a .545 OPS for the Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo. This was the ultimate depth move, but upon assignment with Scranton, Gio tweaked his stance and remodeled his swing with hitting coach Phil Plantier, and that helped him post a 129 wRC+ in the last 100 PAs of his season.

Gio wasn’t a guy, at that point, I was paying much attention to. The Yankees had Miguel Andújar and Gleyber Torres, both coming off excellent rookie seasons. They signed DJ LeMahieu, who figured to be playing a utility infield role for the 2019 campaign. Luke Voit had seemingly come out of nowhere to hold down first base, the Yankee infield looked set, but more than just set, it looked good.

And then, a week into the season, Miggy tore his labrum, and that good infield needed a real boost. Up came Gio Urshela, and all he did was be better, on both sides of the ball, than Andújar was as a Rookie of the Year finalist.

Not only did Urshela post a 130 wRC+ with the Yankees, he did it in style, walking off the Rays a month into his tenure and posting a 114 wRC+ with men in scoring position. That mark was actually better a year later, where he notched a .928 OPS, or 141 wRC+, with RISP. For two seasons, it felt like whenever the Yankees needed a big hit, when they needed to get that runner in, Urshela would oblige. He even drove in seven in 16 postseason games his first two years.

And of course, there was the defense, including more big postseason plays:

What’s been so great about Urshela’s time in the Bronx is it makes us question the different ways we can think about value. He’s not as good as a Stanton or an A-Rod, he hits in the bottom third of a good order, but he’s been excellent, even with a mediocre 2021. But crucial to this question of value is how easy he was to acquire.

Stanton and A-Rod, they’re gambles. There’s risk in giving up promising young talent, or allocating that much payroll space to one player. There was no risk to acquiring Urshela. Any team in baseball could have offered up $25,000, a rounding error for all 30 clubs. Any team could have toyed with his stance and his swing, and banked six wins in less than 300 games.

But only one team did, the Yankees. I don’t think that Brian Cashman saw this as a potential All-Star joining the team — like I said above, he had a really good infield already. Brian Cashman bought a $2 scratch ticket just for the hell of it, and got one of the biggest pieces to Yankee success in the last couple seasons.

There are now questions about how the Yankees will use Urshela. His 2021 wasn’t great, although there were compounding factors including a COVID infection. There’s likely to be some kind of shuffle on the infield; maybe he plays shortstop, maybe the Yankees make a move. Regardless, Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza aren’t far away from reshaping what the Yankee defense is gonna look like, and Urshela might be one of the odd ones out. Even if his time with the Yankees is closer to the end than the beginning, the story of Urshela is one of pure upside and improvement, and boy, does he make the Yankees FO — and Triple-A coaching staff — look like geniuses.