Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon
news

MLB News

Urshela, Gonzalez set for battle over utility spot

MLB.com @MLBastian

MESA, Ariz. -- On a recent spring morning, Indians third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh informed Giovanny Urshela that he was going to take some ground balls at first base during that day's workout. Urshela reacted with such excitement that Sarbaugh likened it to a kid on Christmas morning.

"He's really embraced the utility role," Sarbaugh said.

MESA, Ariz. -- On a recent spring morning, Indians third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh informed Giovanny Urshela that he was going to take some ground balls at first base during that day's workout. Urshela reacted with such excitement that Sarbaugh likened it to a kid on Christmas morning.

"He's really embraced the utility role," Sarbaugh said.

Indians Spring Training: Info | Tickets | Schedule

In a world where Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Jason Kipnis, Edwin Encarnacion and Yonder Alonso populate Cleveland's infield, that is the appropriate mindset for Urshela to take right now. There are no starting jobs available, but the Indians do have a utility job available off the bench. Urshela and Erik Gonzalez -- both sure-handed defenders -- are vying for that spot on the Opening Day roster.

The situation becomes a bit more complicated when considering that Urshela and Gonzalez are among the handful of players -- lefty Ryan Merritt being another -- who are out of Minor League options this year. Simply put, that means they would need to clear waivers before Cleveland could consider sending them to the Minor Leagues. When exposed to waivers, the players are up for grabs for other teams.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Given those circumstances, the Indians are operating under the assumption that one of Urshela or Gonzalez will be in another uniform for the start of the season. Indians manager Terry Francona noted that reality played a role in the decision to add versatile shortstop Eric Stamets to the 40-man roster over the offseason.

"It's kind of cut and dried," Francona said. "We fully feel that if we don't keep one of them, we're going to lose them. Not to get too deep into it, but I think that's why you see a Stamets on the roster, things like that. We're fully prepared that we're going to lose somebody if we don't keep them."

Francona said there is some division in opinion in the Urshela vs. Gonzalez debates that have taken place this spring among the team's various evaluators. The manager admitted that he has even gone back and forth between which player he feels is the best fit for the Tribe's roster.

The main priority for the utility job is defensive reliability at multiple infield positions. Francona wants to be confident that, if he makes an in-game move, his utility man can take the field at any spot and be trusted to catch the ball. The utility man can also serve as a defensive upgrade for late-and-close situations. This spring, Gonzalez has played short and second, while Urshela has logged innings at all four infield spots.

In Friday's game against the A's, Gonzalez manned short, while Urshela got the start at first base.

Video: CLE@LAA: Gonzalez lines an RBI single to left

"I don't have any concerns defensively with either one of them," Francona said.

Francona added that his utility man needs to be able to handle shortstop. That is no issue for the 26-year-old Gonzalez, who was groomed as a shortstop and would likely be a starter at that position if it were not for Lindor's presence. Urshela, who is also 26, is a third baseman by trade, but he has played some short -- including this spring -- and has looked fine at that position.

"They have obviously a little different skill set," Francona said of Urshela and Gonzalez. "But, Gio is so sure-handed that -- for whatever range he may not have at short -- he makes up for it by [being] such a good defender. I think regardless of who it is, we're always going to be well-represented defensively. That's their strength."

Offensively, Gonzalez has hit .262 with a .687 OPS in 81 Major League games and has the higher upside, especially if he were given everyday at-bats. Urshela has hit .225 with a .587 OPS in 148 games in the big leagues, but has a less-complicated swing that may fit a bench role better. The last thing Cleveland will be doing when making its decision is basing it off a small sample of Cactus League at-bats.

"[The decision] will be difficult," Francona said. "There's no getting around it. It's going to be hard."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

Cleveland Indians, Erik Gonzalez, Giovanny Urshela