The Tigers added to their infield on Thursday, announcing the signing of Gio Urshela to a one-year, $1.5MM guarantee. Detroit added that Urshela, a client of Rep 1 Baseball, would receive $100K bonuses at each of 500, 530, 560, 590 and 620 plate appearances. That pushes the deal’s maximum value to $2MM.
It’s the second instance this week of a veteran infielder agreeing to a $1.5MM free agent deal that falls well shy of what most pundits expected entering the offseason. Urshela’s deal matches the $1.5MM deal that Amed Rosario inked with the Rays on Tuesday. Detroit president of baseball operations Scott Harris recently suggested his club wasn’t likely to sign any “everyday-type” hitters to big league deals, citing a desire to commit to the wave of young prospects bubbling up to the majors. However, at this price point, Urshela was likely too enticing an opportunity for a team without a clear answer at third base.
Prior to this agreement, the Tigers looked to be preparing to begin the season with a platoon of Zach McKinstry and either Andy Ibanez or Matt Vierling at the hot corner. That pair would presumably hold things own until 2022 first-round pick Jace Jung worked his way to the big leagues.
The Tigers, perhaps not coincidentally, informed Jung today that he wouldn’t be making the Opening Day roster (X link via Evan Woodbery of MLive.com). They’ve also said fellow prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy will move off of third base and focus exclusively on outfield work. The addition of Urshela gives the Tigers a viable everyday option at third base while Jung finishes off his development — or at the very least provides a strong right-handed bat to complement with the lefty-swinging McKinstry.
Beyond the fit at third base, Urshela provides insurance in other ways. He’s played some shortstop in the big leagues, including 71 innings with the Angels in 2023, and could step in for Javier Baez at times. He also gives Detroit a veteran to be leaned upon in the event that top prospect Colt Keith, who signed a six-year extension before making his MLB debut and is expected to open the year as the Tigers’ second baseman, struggles early on. Urshela could handle second base himself or take up a more prominent role at the hot corner, with McKinstry sliding over to second base should Keith ultimately be determined to be in need of some more time in the minors.
Based on track record alone, Urshela was a candidate for a multi-year deal — and he’d likely have been a lock for one had he been fully healthy last season. Dating back to a 2019 breakout with the Yankees, he carries a .291/.335/.452 batting line in 1871 trips to the plate. He’s struck out at an 18.9% clip overall in that time but improved his bat-to-ball skills over the past two seasons between Anaheim and Minnesota; since Opening Day 2022 he’s fanned in just 16.9% of his plate appearances.
Solid as his career has been since becoming a big league regular, Urshela is a rebound candidate. His power output with the Angels was curiously low to begin the 2023 season, with just two home runs and a paltry .075 ISO (slugging minus batting average) through mid-June. He never got much of a chance to right the ship after suffering a pelvic fracture on June 15 of last season. Urshela didn’t require surgery but was on crutches in the aftermath of the injury and wound up missing the remainder of the season as it healed.
Urshela has fairly even platoon splits throughout his career, though he does skew slightly more productive against left-handed pitching (.290/.328/.445 against southpaws; .272/.320/.414 versus righties). That surely held extra appeal for a Tigers club that posted a tepid .241/.312/.398 slash against lefties in 2023, with the resulting 95 wRC+ ranking 22nd among MLB teams.
From a payroll vantage point, the Urshela deal barely makes a dent. He’s effectively replacing a league-minimum player on the roster, so he’s only adding about $750K of additional guarantees to the Tigers’ projected payroll. Roster Resource pegs Detroit at a $108.4MM projection for the 2024 season, which checks in more than $90MM shy of the team’s franchise-record mark set back in 2017 (under late owner Mike Ilitch, whose son, Chris, now runs the team). As such, there ought to be further resources available if similar bargain options to this Urshela addition present themselves. There’s no indication, however, that the Tigers have considered a higher-profile splash in free agency or on the trade market in the late stages of the offseason.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan first reported the Tigers and Urshela were in agreement on a one-year, $1.5MM deal. Jon Heyman of the New York Post reported the presence of incentives, which Evan Petzold of the Detroit Free-Press specified as being worth up to $500K.