The case for Gio: Uribe is back but has Urshela closed the gap at third?

Each spring, the Indians — like every team — use the preseason as an opportunity to hold competitions to decide certain positions.

With the fifth starter and at least one corner outfield job still on the line, this spring is no different. Competition, the thinking goes, breeds excellence.

So excuse me if I’m a little puzzled as to why the Indians just hand over the job to vagabond Juan Uribe over the incumbent, Giovanny Urshela — who produced a positive WAR in his rookie season — without giving the appearance of an open competition at third.

Urshela is hitting a cool .300 with a team-leading four home runs and 10 RBIs this spring. Complicating matters is the fact that Uribe has played in only two games and missed a stretch of time in the Dominican resolving issues with his work visa. Uribe will rejoin the team today. Meanwhile, Urshela is slated to start the season at AAA Columbus.

Terry Francona said this week that the amount of time Uribe is missing is a concern— “I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t,” he said.

I suppose it’s the kind of concern you have when your starting third baseman misses most of spring training, which begs the question did the Indians put themselves in a predicament here?

I’m not just looking at the third base situation with the benefit of hindsight (there would be no such thing as hindsight at this juncture of time had they not simply named Uribe the starter) nor am I overreacting to Urshela’s torrid start to preseason.

I’m talking about a player in Uribe who will turn 37 this week, who struggles to keep his weight down and remained unsigned until the last week of February. Not to mention he hit .220 in the second half of 2015 bouncing between three teams

Still, 2016’s version of third base somehow promises to be a significant upgrade over the hot corner over from a year ago, when Lonnie Chisenhall was desperately handed the starting gig for the 17th season in a row (or third).

When Urshela was called up to replace Chisenhall in early June last year, most knew that he wasn’t
quite experienced enough to take on the major leagues. But it also wasn’t a surprise that an undercooked Urshela proved to be better than a perpetually reheated Chisenhall.

Juan Uribe
Urshela was only 23 and was playing with shoulder and back problems, so it stood to reason that the Tribe would have to absorb a bit of a dip in offensive production. But his ability to stabilize the left side of the infield defense—along with Francisco Lindor—was enough to keep the Indians afloat for much of the second half of the season despite a largely anemic offense.

With a .225/.279/.330 slash line and six home runs and 21 RBIs in 81 games, it’s apparent Urshela struggled to adapt to major league pitching. That’s not to say Urshela didn’t have his moments in 2015, though.

Shortly after he was called up, Gio drove in the winning run against the Cubs in a 4-3 victory in June. Then in that dastardly August marathon game against the Angels in which the Carlos Carrasco took a no-decision despite allowing one hit over nine scoreless innings, he provided the games only offense with a 12th-inning home run.

But make no mistake, major league pitching proved to be a different animal. One of the more puzzling developments was his struggles against right-handed pitching.

Throughout his minor-league career, the right-handed Urshela had been superior against righties, as he compiled a .284 average against righties versus a .251 clip against lefties in 126 career games at Columbus. When he got to the Indians, things were reversed: Gio managed just a .207 mark against righties but had a .275 average when facing southpaws.

This deviation might, again, illustrate Urshela’s adjustment to major league pitching.
Likewise, his strikeout rate ballooned from a career average of 12 percent to more than 20, Urshela’s walk rate of 6.3 percent was actually an uptick of a couple of points from his minor league career average. Yet another peripheral suggests Urshela was perhaps the recipient of some bad luck was his .266 BABIP, which would rank the second worst among his seven minor league seasons.

What does it all mean? Likely not a whole lot, other than we need to see more—a lot more—before we really know what Gio offers.

Conversely, we know exactly what Uribe has to offer—which isn’t to say it’s all that bad. Despite his advanced age, he can still contribute in a limited capacity on offense. What isn’t known, though, is how he’ll hold up another year older after playing in 120 or more games only twice in the past five seasons.

If nothing else, Urshela’s hot spring and intriguing ceiling should give the Indians pause in how they approach the hot corner this season. It might be beneficial if that pause occurs sooner rather than later.
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