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Jarrell: Urshela, Andujar, and the Early-Season Infield

The Yankees will play their first games since the beginning of March this weekend, and as such it feels excessive and unnecessary to start critiquing the product on the field. There will be plenty of time for takes, second-guessing, and Monday morning quarterbacking now that baseball has returned. Enormous health-and-safety questions notwithstanding, it feels good. I’m going to sit back and enjoy it before it hits me that a slow or uneven first ten counting games could essentially doom the campaign.

But while these three exhibition games are worth savoring, there will still be events to analyze. It’s well known that middle infield is thin at the moment, with DJ LeMahieu continuing his road back from virus diagnosis. Gleyber Torres will be the everyday shortstop – that much we know – but we’re currently staring down the possibility of Tyler Wade at second base until LeMahieu is ready to return. Wade is a solid, versatile defensive player and a useful weapon as a pinch-runner, but he hasn’t hit in the big leagues, and it’s not as if he hasn’t had time to prove himself.

Let’s be more creative. Aside from LeMahieu, the Yankees’ best-hitting infielders are Miguel Andújar and Gio Urshela. Andújar’s defensive issues are well-documented, but the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up needs to be in the lineup when healthy. Urshela, on the other hand, has proven himself as a fielder but faces the pressure to duplicate his outstanding 2019 campaign at the plate. When these two are at their best, they’re undoubtedly better options than Wade or Thairo Estrada. At least until LeMahieu returns, fans should want both players in the lineup every night. And with an outfield of Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, and Aaron Judge making Giancarlo Stanton the designated hitter by default, the only way this happens is with Andújar at third and Urshela at second.

Andújar in the field and Urshela at a position he’s seldom ever played instead of Wade in the lineup? Absolutely. 2018 wasn’t that long ago – we shouldn’t forget that Andújar (along with Stanton, it should be noted) carried the offense through the summer when Judge was hurt, Gary Sánchez was ineffective, and LeMahieu was still in Colorado. And I believe that Urshela is enough of a game changer with the bat that it’s worth trying him at a brand new spot in the field instead of settling for a weaker offensive option. The numbers show he was no flash in the pan, and not just because of the inflated power production courtesy at least in part of the rocket ball. He turned himself into a true hitter. 

Urshela has a unique skill set. He’s a free swinger – his chase rate is 12 points above the league average – but he doesn’t strike out at an aggressive clip. All those chases don’t produce the whiffs that you’d expect. Even if the power numbers take a dive this year, you still have a smart hitter who knows how to make contact. Urshela may not slug .534 again, but he could slug a hundred points lower than that and still be preferable to Wade.

Here’s my desired Opening Day lineup:

  1. Aaron Hicks – CF
  2. Aaron Judge – RF
  3. Gleyber Torres – SS
  4. Giancarlo Stanton – DH
  5. Gary Sánchez – C
  6. Miguel Andújar – 3B
  7. Brett Gardner – LF
  8. Luke Voit – 1B
  9. Gio Urshela – 2B

Why not? Urshela has the defensive tools to make any infield position work. Andújar needs a position with Stanton at DH. There’s no need to sacrifice any firepower. Especially with LeMahieu sidelined, the best bats available should be in the lineup every night.

I don’t expect to see Urshela get any reps at second base this weekend, but it would be a pleasant surprise if he did. The pure joy of having real baseball back will keep my disdainful commentary to a minimum no matter what happens. But of the unconventional strategies the Yankees could try, this one might be the simplest. This season will demand unorthodox thinking, and the makeup of the infield will serve as the first test of the club’s willingness to adapt.

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