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Countdown to Opening Day – 39
Has the window of opportunity already closed in Cleveland for Giovanny Urshela?
After getting a half-season taste test of the Majors in the second half of the 2015 season, Urshela’s path back to the Indians lineup received a big obstacle when the club signed free agent Juan Uribe to a one-year deal last February. A young Indians team with minimal playoff experience and knocking down the door for contention looked to be a perfect landing spot for Uribe, which would allow Urshela to continue to fine tune his approach at the plate. That was the biggest perceived issue preventing him from being a regular starting third baseman in the big leagues.
So it was off to Columbus for Urshela, instead of trying to address his hitting needs in limited, infrequent action as a member of the Indians bench. It came even after a strong and healthy spring with the team in Goodyear, Arizona.
The Uribe experiment did not work, at least in regards to his performance on the field (his immeasurable effects in the clubhouse may have aided several younger players, including Jose Ramirez, who burst onto the scene with a breakout offensive campaign). But despite Uribe’s veteran presence in the dugout and the clubhouse, the Indians parted ways with him on August 1, designating him for assignment when the club acquired outfielder Brandon Guyer from the Tampa Bay at the trade deadline. Uribe was released four days later, hitting .205 in 73 games. The door was not opened for Urshela, however, as he continued to be a part of the Clippers lineup as the Indians instead elected to move Ramirez in from his regular workload in left field covering for Michael Brantley to man the hot corner for the Tribe.
Urshela started slowly in Columbus, hitless through his first five games. He eventually was able to successfully put bat to ball and was named the International League’s Batter of the Week for April 25 to May 1. On May 11, he hurt his right hamstring and landed on the 7-day disabled list.
Yandy Diaz got the call from Double-A Akron to fill the void and performed well enough to stick around once Urshela was healed and back in the lineup on May 25. At that time, Urshela had the pressure from above in the 37-year-old $4 million man in Uribe and below in Diaz.
Urshela continued to man third base for the Clippers while Diaz toured the playing field in several spots, getting the utility man treatment. He put together an eight-game hitting streak in June, but topped that with an impressive 19-game streak from the middle of July into the first week of August, hitting .388 in the stretch with eight doubles, three homers, and 15 RBI. He was named the league’s Batter of the Week for the second time on August 8, hitting .500 over the previous seven days. He ended his season strong, hitting .327 in August and .353 in four September contests.
Despite the good end to his season, he did not get the call to the Major League club with playing time at a minimum with the strong play of Ramirez for the Indians. With the club electing to forgo the opportunity to get him into some late season games in some meaningful games, it fueled more questions about Urshela’s MLB future in Cleveland. He was one of just four members of the 40-man roster to not join the team at the time, with one out for the season injured (Dylan Baker) and another (T.J. House) designated for assignment before season’s end.
The young right-handed hitter ended his season with a .274/.294/.380 hitting line with 24 doubles, a triple, eight homers, and 57 RBI. He cut back on his strikeout rate, whiffing in just 11.8% of his plate appearances for the year, but he drew just 15 walks for the season (3.1% of his trips to the box).
The 25-year-old Urshela will represent his native Columbia in the World Baseball Classic in March and will undoubtedly hope that he can use the experience to jump start his 2017. It would appear that he would be destined to return to the Columbus lineup for a fourth straight season, trying to prove that his Triple-A career .274/.310/.427 slash could have use for a Major League club.
He is often left unmentioned among camp candidates with a legitimate chance to clinch a bench role on the Indians team for the coming season, especially with the quick rise of the 25-year-old Cuban Diaz, who is often mentioned as a bench option for Cleveland because of his new found versatility in the farm system (he logged innings at second and third for Akron and second, third, left, center, and right fields for Columbus last season).
Starting with his WBC time in March, Urshela will be putting his hitting talents on display to prove that he has more than just the glove necessary to be a player in the Major Leagues. Third base depth in the farm system is light, giving him value to the Indians, but the emergence of Ramirez as Cleveland’s every day third baseman and the potential of Diaz have put Urshela further away in the rear view mirror than some would have hoped at this juncture of his career.
Other notable 39’s in Indians history: Johnny Burnett (1930), Ed Klieman (1943-1945), Gary Bell (1958-1967), Len Barker (1979-1983), Steve Reed (1998-2001)
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