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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Gio Urshela

A small-time reunion to shore up infield depth could make sense for both sides

Los Angeles Angels v Houston Astros Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Even amidst one of the weakest free agent classes in years, the list of available infield upgrades available outside the trade market is one of the worst in recent memory. Fortunately for the Yankees, a sizable infield upgrade isn’t near the top of their list of offseason needs, what with Gleyber Torres manning the keystone for another year, Anthony Volpe ascendant at shortstop, Anthony Rizzo and DJ LeMahieu still under contract, and Oswald Peraza and Oswaldo Cabrera waiting in the wings. It’s too late to fully rectify what was a clear mistake in essentially exchanging Urshela for Josh Donaldson after 2021, but bringing the third baseman back on a small-time deal could be helpful in filling the numerous bottom-of-the-roster holes that have sprung up since that unfortunate deal.

It’s only a little extra help, but history dictates that the Yankees will be able to use what he has to offer, given that Rizzo and LeMahieu probably can’t be relied on for a full healthy season at this point, and that any significant trade could very well see Peraza on the move. And even if he isn’t moved, the Yankees might still have some hesitance about handing him all 600 of the Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Josh Donaldson plate appearances that need to be replaced next year. Enter, perhaps, an old friend, in the form of Gio Urshela, who’s reached free agency for the first time in his career at age 32.

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

2023 Statistics: 62 games, 228 PA, .299/.329/.374, 2 HR, 24 RBI, 92 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR

2024 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections: 92 games, 339 PA, .273/.332/.410, 9 HR, 45 RBI, 99 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR

Contract Status: Free agent.

Urshela struggled through his worst season of his career since breaking out as a surprise starter with the Yankees in 2019, dealing with a significant power outage before seeing his season end after two months with a fractured pelvis. It was the second time in three seasons that Urshela produced “meh” results at the plate, having put up a 97 wRC+ in his final season in the Bronx in 2021, but he was still a quite productive player as recently as last year, when he slashed .285/.338/.429 (119 wRC+) in 144 games as Minnesota’s starting third baseman. He might not be the 133 wRC+ hitter we were graced with in 2019-20, but he still may very well be a solid MLB-caliber infielder, and while those kinds of players are decidedly unsexy, they can also be quite useful for a team like the Yankees with a lot of holes to fill, and limited means of doing so.

Urshela isn’t likely to command much of a contract, having made a hair over $8 million in his last year of arbitration with the Angels, and given the campaign he had just had, he’s not going to be getting any kind of raise on it. A one-year deal to return to the Bronx could make sense for both sides, as the Yankees look for capable spot starters and bench players and Urshela looks to put himself in a position for a better contract come next year. Having still posted a .299 batting average along with some of the best contact and strikeout rates in the league, his swing is still more or less intact, and it’ll only be a question of whether the lack of power that tanked his bottom line last year was a consequence of injury, or simply age taking its toll. His barrel rates and exit velocities were the worst of his career in 2022, so while the stability of his ancillary numbers leave a lot of space for a rebound, whoever signs him will be taking a calculated risk that those key contract metrics won’t be the norm going forward.

The good thing for the Yankees is that, if they do sign him, they won’t need him to shoulder a full-time starting load, whether Peraza is present or not. If the 2023 Yankees taught us anything, it’s that you need to have a backup plan that doesn’t involve giving a full season’s worth of playing time to career minor leaguers who can’t hit water out of a boat. A reunion with Urshela wouldn’t be the splash that most are looking for, but it might help answer the question of just how many more games might have been won last year if the Yankees simply had competent, average-ish big leaguers to plug their gaps, instead of the sub-replacement level work they got from the likes of Cabrera, Jake Bauers, and Franchy Cordero. If Urshela has anything left in the tank, the best way to get it out of him might be to pencil him in for 300-ish plate appearances that can be curated for matchups in a way they certainly weren’t in Anaheim. Other teams can offer him an everyday role that the Yankees can’t, but it may also be that the role the Yankees can offer him suits him better at this stage of his career.

If Peraza had managed to produce more than a 49 OPS+ in his chances at the majors last year, this post probably wouldn’t be happening. Unfortunately, his rookie-year flop leaves the Yankees in a tough position. It’ll be hard to stash him in Triple-A for another season without both crushing his trade value and potentially hampering his development at the highest level, and a healthy LeMahieu is going to eat up enough starts at the hot corner that routes to upgrading the position are severely limited. A player like Urshela, at the very least, raises the floor at the position quite a bit, and at this point, given how many resources need to be directed towards the outfield and the rotation, that might be all we can ask for. He’s not going to carry a lineup, but he can at the very least be a stabilizing presence. Whether as a regular part-timer or an injury stop gap, Gio’s probably not going to be a huge black hole in your lineup, even if he doesn’t get all of his power back.

The overall success of this Yankees offseason will probably be decided by their ability to reel in a big fish like Juan Soto or Yoshinobu Yamamoto, but beneath all that hubbub, there’s a lot to be said for simply making sure there aren’t any of those black holes in the lineup when something goes wrong. A reunion with Urshela gives us that, if nothing else.