Twins face important third base decision in offseason

The Twins were one of baseball’s most aggressive teams last spring, and they’re in for another active offseason over the coming months. Carlos Correa has already implied plans to opt out of the final two years of his contract, as expected. How to proceed at shortstop may be the biggest question facing president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and his staff, but they’ll also have a call to make at the other position on the left side of the infield.

This past season, third base was primarily the purview of Gio Urshela. Acquired from the Yankees alongside Gary Sánchez in the deal that offloaded Josh Donaldson’s contract and sent Isiah Kiner-Falefa to the Bronx, Urshela went on to start 131 games at the hot corner in Minneapolis. He stepped to the plate 551 times and hit at a solid .285/.338/.429 clip with 13 home runs and 27 doubles. By measure of wRC+, the Colombia native was 19 percentage points better than the league average hitter.

That represented a bounceback from a pedestrian final season in the Bronx, when Urshela hit .267/.301/.419 through 442 trips to the dish. He didn’t recapture his breakout 2019-20 form — a combined .310/.358/.523 mark — but he no doubt had a productive offensive season. He finished the year well, hitting .294/.343/.419 after the calendar flipped to September. Urshela doesn’t take many walks, but he makes contact at an above-average rate and has enough power to approach or exceed 30 doubles and 15 homers during his best seasons.

While Urshela has been an above-average hitter in three of the past four seasons, his defense draws more variable feedback from public metrics. Ultimate Zone Rating has consistently pegged him as an above-average third baseman, which aligns with the general reputation he’d had as a prospect. Defensive Runs Saved has varied in its enthusiasm for his work but comes in slightly positive overall, while Statcast’s Outs Above Average has rated him as a below-average defender in every season of his career. There’s a fair bit of variability in all public defensive metrics, but Urshela has proven particularly divisive across those measures. Consider his cumulative runs compared to average as a third baseman by each measure since he emerged as a regular with the Yankees in 2019:

  • UZR: +6.4
  • DRS: +5
  • Statcast: -9

The Twins’ internal evaluation of Urshela’s defense could go a long way towards determining how they proceed at third base. The 31-year-old is under club control for another season, and Minnesota could simply pencil him back into the everyday lineup. He’s a valuable player, and there’s something to be said for retaining stability. Yet the Twins will have to weigh his production against a fairly lofty salary; MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects Urshela to receive roughly $9.2M for his final year of arbitration eligibility.

That’s certainly not an outlandish figure, particularly if the Twins view Urshela as an above-average defender. At the same time, it’s not a completely insignificant sum for a team that entered this season with a franchise-record payroll in the $134M range, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Assuming Correa opts out and the Twins exercise their option on Sonny Gray while buying out Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer, they’ll head into the offseason with roughly $51M in guaranteed money on the books, according to Roster Resource. Minnesota’s arbitration class, led by Urshela, is projected for north of $37M on top of that. Not everyone in the arb group will be tendered contracts — Emilio Pagán is projected for a $3.7M salary and seems likely to be cut loose — but the Twins could have roughly $84M in internal expenditures before looking to address shortstop, the bullpen and catcher.

An outright non-tender of Urshela would be a bit surprising. It’s easy to imagine the Twins entertaining trade possibilities, however, particularly with rookie corner infielder José Miranda an option to step in at third base. Miranda has always been a bat-first prospect, and he spent more time at first base than at third during his debut campaign. After hitting .268/.325/.426 through his first 483 MLB plate appearances, the 24-year-old Miranda is guaranteed a regular role somewhere in the lineup. Would the Twins feel comfortable turning to him on an everyday basis at third base, where he spent the majority of his minor league career? That’d leave more first base/DH at-bats for Luis Arraez, who’s not a good defender at either second or third, and potentially clear a path to at-bats for former top prospect Alex Kirilloff. Kirilloff will be returning from a second season decimated by wrist injuries and presumably has to earn his way into the lineup, but he has the offensive potential to do so.

Falvey indicated last week the team was at least open to Miranda playing more third than first moving forward, via Aaron Gleeman of the Athletic)

“We want to keep third base in his mix, for sure,” Falvey said. “We think he can play over there. It just worked out roster-wise that first is where he had to play a lot. I think our best team, our healthiest team, has Jose playing a lot of games at third, and some at first. But we want him to play both corners.”

The Twins’ baseball ops leader didn’t tip his hand as to whether that meant Urshela was likely to be on next year’s roster. 

“We’ll have some decisions to make, not just on him but a few others in the arbitration space,” Falvey said (via Gleeman). “He finished in a really good spot. He played really well down the stretch, and he was a great teammate, a great person in (the clubhouse). All of those are conversations we’ll start to have as we get closer to November and December.”

If the Twins did make Urshela available via trade (or non-tender), it’s easy to envision a few teams having interest. The D-Backs, Marlins, Cubs, Giants, and Tigers could all look for third base help this offseason. There aren’t many obvious solutions available in free agency (particularly if Nolan Arenado sticks with the Cardinals by foregoing his opt-out clause or signing an extension), leaving the Twins to weigh their options with Urshela over the coming weeks.

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