Tigers sign infielder Gio Urshela to a one year deal

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The Tigers signed infielder Gio Urshela to a one year, $1.5 million contract, as reported on Thursday afternoon by Jeff Passan. UPDATE: To make room on the 40 man roster, recently claimed outfielder TJ Hopkins has been DFA’d.

Urshela is a bat-first utility infielder who spent the 2023 season playing for the Angels. His offensive skills hinge in a high contact rate and he hit .299/.329/.374 with two home runs in 62 games last year. While that figures to a slightly below average performance according to wRC+, it would have still been sufficient to rank among the Tigers’ best nine hitters last year. Urshela is a particular threat against lefty pitching. He’s a career .290 hitter against southpaws, and dialed that figure all the way up to .373 last year. His season was cut short by a fall on July 20th that resulted in a broken pelvis and kept him off the field for the remainder of Los Angeles’ schedule.

Now 32 years old, Urshela was signed by Cleveland out of Colombia as a teenager and made his debut with the parent club in 2016. However, he is best known for his three years as a Yankee, which included two monster years at the plate as their primary third baseman. He hit .314 and clubbed 21 dingers in that breakout 2019 campaign and followed it up with an equally potent run during the short 2020 season. The Yanks traded him to Minnesota after a dramatic slip in his performance, but he got right back in the horse in the Twin Cities and hit for a 122 wRC+ in 2022.

The Angels traded for Urshela prior to last season, undoubtedly expecting him to be a significant two-way contributor. With positional versatility and a history of offensive production, it was a good gamble. However, what they got was something less, even before he was sidelined.

In the four years between 2019-2022, the third baseman averaged a barrel rate in the neighborhood of 7.5 percent. Last year, that number dropped sharply and he barreled just 3.9 percent of batted balls. Similarly his hard contact rate dipped from his 40 percent norm to 33.7 percent. The primary culprit? He was no longer getting favorable results against the sinker. Statcast tracked him as just a .172 hitter against the pitch last year, with severely depressed SLG, xSLG, and hard contact rate compared to his career norms.

That being said, there’s no downside to this signing. At just $1.5 million, the entire value of his contract is pocket change on the scale of MLB budgeting. And even if he just can’t drive two seam fastballs anymore, which is a real possibility at his age, he’s still a useful player to have around. After all, Urshela is a solid defender, has no issue putting the bat on the ball, and his approach appears to be unchanged based on batted ball distribution and plate discipline rates.

This signing also adds another layer to the complex infield situation in Detroit. Urshela has spent significant innings at first and third base, as well as shortstop. The Tigers are undoubtedly going to prioritize at-bats for Mark Canha and Spencer Torkelson at first base and, like it or not, Javy Báez is locked in at short. That leaves just third base for Urshela, who will be splitting at-bats there with Matt Vierling, Andy Ibáñez, Zach McKinstry, and potentially Jace Jung by midseason. Something has to give.

With low cost and just one year, though, there’s no downside here. If he wins a regular part-time role, he’s an inexpensive bridge to the next generation. If he often sits on the bench, his bat is a luxury in pinch hitting situations, particularly against lefties. Even if he’s pushed out of the picture early on this season by, say, Ibáñez continuing his late 2023 excellence or Jung kicking down the major league door, that’s a cost of business the team will be happy to pay for the sake of a thriving offense. In lieu of an actual good full-time player, AJ Hinch likes his options, and Urshela provides another one with specific qualities that may help them piece their infield together, particularly in the early going.

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