Versatile infielder Urshela agrees to deal with Tigers

February 23rd, 2024

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers added a veteran right-handed bat to a predominantly young hitting roster, agreeing to terms Thursday on a one-year contract with former division rival , the club announced.

The deal includes a $1.5 million base salary plus performance bonuses that can earn him up to $500,000 for plate appearances.

Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris said last week that the Tigers didn’t have at-bats available to add another everyday player, but he left the door open for a smaller signing. The 32-year-old Urshela gives the Tigers a primary veteran option at third base, where Matt Vierling had been the projected starter, along with other infield capabilities.

“When Gio is healthy, he does three things really well: He makes a ton of contact, he hits the ball hard and he plays above-average defense at third base,” Harris said Friday morning. “Those are the three main elements of why we targeted Gio. We're thrilled to add him to this group.”

Urshela’s 2023 season, spent with the Angels, came to an abrupt end during a game against the Rangers on June 15, when he sustained a pelvic fracture trying to beat out a throw to first base. In 62 games before the injury, he hit .299, his highest mark since he hit .314 in his breakout 2019 season with the Yankees, despite an elevated ground-ball rate (48.6 percent, up 6.9 points from 2022) that limited him to just two home runs.

“Very scary,” Urshela said of the injury, “but it’s good now. It was a long process to recover.”

Best known for his defensive prowess, Urshela accumulated six defensive runs saved before his season-ending injury, tied for the sixth most among all third basemen in 2023. The versatile veteran also saw time at first, second and short.

Urshela has become quite well traveled in recent seasons. After serving as the Yankees’ starting third baseman from 2019-21, he was traded to the Twins along with Gary Sánchez in exchange for Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Ben Rortvedt in March 2022. He was acquired by the Angels in November 2022 for Minor League right-hander Alejandro Hidalgo.

Urshela has appeared in parts of eight Major League seasons with the Guardians, Blue Jays, Yankees, Twins and Angels. Since his first full big league campaign in 2019, he has slashed .291/.335/.452 with an above-average 115 OPS+ in 497 games.

Urshela also has a contact ability that fits the Tigers’ profile of zone control, despite a low walk rate and high chase rate. His 18.8 percent whiff rate was six points below the MLB average, while his 15.8 percent strikeout rate was his lowest since 2017. His 37 percent chase rate is right around his career average and well above the MLB average, but he mitigates it with a 66.5 percent contact rate when he chases.

“I think as an offensive player, he’s a contributor,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “We saw it up close and personal a couple years ago in Minnesota, that he’s a tough out. He makes contact, he puts up good at-bats, he gets hits, the things you like as an offensive player. He crushes lefties, which is a good sign, but he handles himself against righties. He’s been a complete player, so I think that adding that type of player at the beginning of camp is pretty awesome.”

By fitting Urshela into their lineup primarliy at third base, the Tigers can free up Vierling to get some starts in a predominantly left-handed-hitting outfield. Though Vierling reported to Spring Training focused on third base, he was also part of Detroit's outfield drills Thursday.