Competition tends to bring out the best in those involved. That saying usually proves itself true in the context of sports and especially within healthy competition between teammates.
Jonathan Schoop and Luis Arraez pushed each other on a 101-win team in 2019. While nobody’s playing time was in jeopardy, José Berríos and Kenta Maeda duked it out at the top of the rotation in 2020. Both were some of the best pitchers in the American League during the 60-game season. Last year, Miguel Sanó put together a solid campaign after a rough start and briefly relinquished first base to rookie Alex Kirilloff.
There’s a three-way race for the starting spot at third base between Gio Urshela, Royce Lewis, and José Miranda this year. All three have had different paths to this point. Still, each could be competing for reps at the position when healthy.
Urshela weighs in as the incumbent for the job. Coming over from the New York Yankees in the Josh Donaldson trade, he has slashed .270/.330/.403 with five home runs in 48 games so far this season. Urshela is a bottom-of-the-lineup hitter, but he consistently makes flashy plays at third. When paired with Correa, the left side of the field is one of the best in baseball defensively.
The Twins haven’t exactly been getting a big season offensively from Urshela. But he has come up big in recent weeks. His best stretch of the season has been over the last couple of weeks when he slashed .345/.409/.517 with 13 RBIs and two home runs in the 17 games he’s played since May 18.
Lewis going back down to prep for positions outside of shortstop, including third base, may have played a part in that. Urshela hasn’t directly lost any playing time, but it’s safe to assume he read the tea leaves that Lewis could take some of his playing time away soon if he didn’t turn things around. Regardless, Urshela continues to prove why the Twins made him the everyday third baseman.
Miranda is Urshela’s presumed heir apparent. Although Donaldson blocked him last year, Miranda quickly won over fans with his monster 2021 season in Triple-A. Urshela’s arrival precluded Miranda from immediately earning a starting position at third. Miranda’s first stint in the big leagues was an adjustment for him. His slash line of .164/.200/.284 through 19 games wasn’t going to cut it on a first-place ball club.
So the Twins sent him back down on May 29 to make room for Lewis to rejoin the team. However, Miranda’s trip across the Mississippi River was short. Minnesota recalled him the next day after Lewis landed on the 10-day IL with a bone bruise in his knee. A prompt demotion seemed to do something for Miranda. Last week was his best as a big leaguer. He had a .318/.348/.773 slash line with three homers and six runs driven in over his last six games. Miranda showed the potential fans heard about last season in St. Paul and why he could be a long-term option at third.
Finally, Lewis has emerged as the flashy option at third this season. Fans hope he remains in Minneapolis after a solid first two weeks. Lewis slashed .308/.325/.564 in his first 11 games with the Twins.
Third base isn’t a natural position for Lewis. He’s only played three games at third base in the minors and made 12 starts at the position in the Arizona Fall League. Center field is another option for Lewis, which allows him to relieve Byron Buxton on his off days. What happens with the Twins lineup if they enter a playoff series? It’s unlikely Rocco Baldelli would hold Buxton back as much when Minnesota is playing their most meaningful games.
Lewis will need a place to play if the Twins want to use him in the postseason. Therefore, he could spend more time at third. Playing next to a platinum glove winner in Carlos Correa could take pressure off him. I also don’t think the Twins would be afraid to sit Urshela, especially if Lewis’ bat is too good to ignore come October.
It seems like Urshela isn’t going to see his role change dramatically anytime soon, though, even if fans would like to see Lewis playing every day in the infield or Miranda take the position for himself. Urshela is a veteran with playoff experience who is starting to find his swing thanks to a subtle message that there’s plenty of competition. That’s not to say things can’t change. However, whoever wants to take the position will have to earn it, and that process could be slow-developing.
Whoever becomes the go-to option at third might not necessarily be the full-time, everyday starter. For example, Miranda could “win” the competition during the season, but he would split the responsibilities with Urshela. Miranda will still be the one getting most of the games, but Urshela and Lewis will still get plenty of reps at third. It helps that Miranda and Lewis have other positions they could play, allowing them to stay in the lineup.
Minnesota’s “split carries” approach is not unprecedented. Jason Castro and Mitch Garver shared the everyday duties for most of 2019. The Twins used Schoop and Arraez this way as well. In both situations, the veterans started with the everyday job while the young guys slowly earned more time. Baldelli and the Twins front office seem to value the slow and steady approach, considering how careful they are trying to avoid overloading their players.
The Twins could trade Urshela at the deadline. He’ll never be the main part of a deal, but he could be a valued additional piece. Think Logan Forsythe after Minnesota traded Brian Dozier a few seasons ago, except in reverse. However, trading Urshela seems unlikely unless his value increases before the end of the summer. The Twins would need to clearly see that Miranda and Lewis crowd the position too much for Urshela.
Healthy competition between teammates is a great thing. It allows guys to push each other, which prevents the incumbent starters from getting complacent while forcing younger players to earn their time in the majors. The Twins have a great problem on their hands, especially once Urshela, Miranda, and Lewis can all play at the same time again. It’s frustrating not always to see a consistent person at the position. But for now, it’s bringing out the best in the men covering the hot corner