NEW YORK — The New York Yankees got a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman who just might win the batting title for the price of a Hyundai.
But the craziest part about Gio Urshela’s sudden ascension?
The Yankees had absolutely no idea Urshela would be this good after acquiring him from the Toronto Blue Jays for what is believed to be $25,000 in cash considerations on Aug. 4, 2018.
“Nobody thought Gio would be this guy,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman told Yahoo Sports. “What he is doing now was not anything we felt we were tapping into.”
In parts of three seasons with the Cleveland Indians (who ultimately designated him for assignment) and the Blue Jays, Urshela posted eight homers and a .589 OPS in 167 games.
But the 27-year-old has since busted out in The Bronx, hitting .335 — second in the AL behind teammate DJ LeMahieu if Urshela had enough at-bats to qualify — to go along with 18 homers, 64 RBIs and a .964 OPS in 101 games in 2019.
On Monday, Urshela blasted a 461-foot homer against the Baltimore Orioles. During the four-game series, he had 10 hits.
No Yankee has won the batting title since Bernie Williams in 1998. LeMahieu is hitting .337.
Urshela has also played brilliant defense at the hot corner — making highlight-reel caliber plays on a nightly basis — even though the advanced metrics somehow paint a different picture, crediting him with negative-five defensive runs saved.
“We had been trying to acquire him for awhile,” Cashman said. “We daydreamed about him being a very versatile utility player. We loved his glove. We were very fortunate that we ran into him at the proper time of his development.”
The Yankees came into the 2019 campaign with AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Miguel Andujar at third. But Andujar was forced to undergo season-ending surgery in mid-May to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Urshela has proven himself to be a more than adequate replacement.
“I’m really, really, really grateful for the opportunity to get out there and show everyone what I’ve been working on the last couple years,” Urshela told Yahoo Sports. “I’m finally getting the results.”
Urshela’s transformation at the plate
The Yankees certainly knew about Urshela’s glove work. After all, he’d already inflected his share of damage on “D” as an opponent.
Two years ago at Progressive Field, Urshela made one of the best plays you’ll ever see, robbing Clint Frazier of extra-bases and then making a Derek Jeter-like jump throw to get Ronald Torreyes at the plate.
“No, that’s an Urshela throw,” joke Urshela, who also played goalie while growing up in soccer-crazed Columbia, after re-watching video of his old web gem. “It’s just all reactionary.”
Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who was still in broadcasting at the time, marveled at the play as a former third baseman himself.
“Man,” Boone said. “That’s really good. He’s had a handful of players for us that fall into that special category.”
Added franchise cornerstone Aaron Judge: “He’s been showing out for us. It was impressive watching him from a distance. But now to have him on our team and then see his preparation and his work up close, I can see why he makes those plays.”
However, Urshela wasn’t able to really establish himself until his bat caught up.
He found his confidence — as well as his hitting stroke — while working with Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Phil Plantier. Urshela opened up his stance, so he’d be able to impact the inside pitch. He currently leads the majors in two-strike batting average.
“He’s staying through his legs more,” Cashman said. “He’s gotten stronger. So between the strength and conditioning component and the mechanical adjustments, he’s been tapping into his lower half more. And it’s created a whole new dynamic.”
I keep reading about how Gio Urshela has made changes since coming to the Yankees. Not hard to see how his stance has changed since his rookie year, is it. pic.twitter.com/gU3iuCs2Dl
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) May 6, 2019
It’s also enabled Urshela to do damage in the middle of the order.
“He’s got natural bat-to-ball skill, and has an ability to barrel it up,” Boone said. “But now when he does square it, he’s turning it into slug now.”
Added one AL scout: “Helluva job by him. You keep waiting for a regression and it doesn’t happen. And that’s a credit to him.”
The unsung hero of the 2019 Yankees
But Urshela was different.
The Blue Jays were doing some roster cleanup, and Urshela was out of options at the end of 2018. So the Yankees elected to take a flier, giving Urshela a short, minor-league audition to see what they had.
He posted an .815 OPS in 27 games with Triple-A Scranton, but the organization opted to leave him off the 40-man roster before ultimately bringing him back on a minors deal.
Urshela then started late in spring training due to ankle injury.
“It took awhile to full integrate him,” Cashman said. “But once he got healthy, he really got after it.”
Urshela wound up having an extremely productive showing in the Grapefruit League, setting the stage for his big year in the majors.
“I remember talking to Aaron [Boone] at the batting cage in the first week of spring games,” Cashman said. “And he told me, ‘I think this guy is for real.’ And I was like, that’d be great if he was. But no one expected him to be Manny Machado.”
The Yankees, of course, elected to pass on Machado after hosting him over the winter. Machado (26 HR, .813 OPS) went on to sign a 10-year, $300 million contract with the San Diego Padres, while Urshela is making a mere $555,000.
Going into 2020, the team could have a position battle on its hands, assuming Andujar can successfully finish off his rehab. But regardless, depth has been key to the Yankees’ resurgence. Injuries can happen. Just ask them.
And Gio Urshela still has to prove he isn’t just another flash in the pan.
“We’ve had [unsung] guys like Shawn Chacon and Shane Spencer come up and impact our club,” Cashman said. “Some have more staying power than others, and can create a longer career. But either way, it’s pretty special when it does happen, because they’re great stories.”
Added Judge of Urshela’s unlikely contribution: “It’s huge. It’s everything we needed. We needed somebody to step up. And like I’ve said before, we wouldn’t be in first place without him.”
Not bad for the price of an average car.
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