The Minnesota Twins 2022 Opening Day roster is starting to take shape with two weeks left of Spring Training.
Minnesota’s lineup again looks to be stacked with solid hitters throughout it. Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa lead the way with high-end star power. In addition, the team features some veteran experience in Max Kepler, Miguel Sanó, and Jorge Polanco, along with young prospects in Alex Kirilloff and Ryan Jeffers.
Most of the conversation has surrounded signing Correa and Minnesota’s pitching depth. Before that, the spotlight seemed to be on Gio Urshela and Gary Sanchez, two of the team’s other additions during the past two weeks. The Twins acquired Urshela and Sanchez in the Josh Donaldson trade with the New York Yankees on March 14.
At first glance, it looks like Minnesota got to dump Donaldson’s salary, and the Yankees unloaded two guys who were the odd men out in New York. But Urshela and Sanchez are still capable of impacting the Twins this season as a couple of buy-low players. That seems to be something the front office is counting on. Both players appear to be penciled into the Opening Day lineup barring any last-minute changes.
Urshela had a breakout 2019 season with the Yankees, slashing .314/.355/.534 with 21 home runs and a 3.1 fWAR. He recorded a 1.6 fWAR season in 2020. However, he took a step back last year, with a slash line of .267/.301/.419 with 14 home runs and 1.0 fWAR. He also had a career-high 24.7 percent strikeout rate.
Urshela’s regression is partially due to a couple of issues, but mainly he hasn’t been able to square up and make solid contact. Baseball Savant says he had a 2.0 percent weak contact rate and a 48.4 ground ball percentage. Both were career-worst for Urshela. His average exit velocity also dipped down to 88.9 MPH, his lowest rate since the 2018 season.
However, Urshela’s 2021 campaign wasn’t a disaster, and he has a path to being a bounce-back candidate. Swinging at the first pitch has helped him attack pitchers with a 42.2 percent first-pitch swing rate in 2019, which went down to 35.3 percent last year. On top of that, some new voices could help Urshela find some power in his swing while helping him elevate the ball more to get closer to his 2019 production.
So what can the Twins expect from Urshela at the plate in 2022? According to Baseball Savant, Urshela would have only hit two fewer home runs at Target Field compared to Yankee Stadium last season. FanGraphs projects him to have a bit of a bounce-back season, slashing .269/.313/.440 with 17 home runs. That isn’t an All-Star season by any means, but he projects to have a 2.0 fWAR.
Urshela can bring versatility to a lineup. He can play at every infield position and has a handful of appearances in the outfield over his career. He seems to be making his home as Minnesota’s starting third baseman to fill the spot Donaldson held for the last two seasons. Third base is also where Urshela has spent most of his time since joining the Yankees in 2019.
Whereas 2019 was a breakout season from his bat, Urshela showed off what he could do with his glove in 2020. He recorded a 5.4 Ultimate Zone Rating (0 UZR clip is league average) and with 5.0 defensive runs saved totaled in 43 games at third. Urshela’s defense slipped down to 0.9 UZR and minus-5 DRS in 2021. However, he was also playing less time at third base and spent 28 games at shortstop, where he’s more stretched defensively.
Keeping him stationed as the everyday third baseman could help him focus on his position. After all, he was playing great defense when he consistently played at third. The ideal turnout would be something along the lines of Polanco moving to second base for Minnesota last season. A consistent role with a position he’s more comfortable at could help him produce more at his position and the plate.
Urshela has been a nice player for most of the past three seasons, but the name that made the headlines in the deal was Sanchez, a two-time All-Star. The former Yankee catcher has a career slash line of .230/.318/.487 with 138 home runs in seven seasons. The past two seasons have been a struggle for Sanchez compared to his first two seasons in the majors. In 2021, he hit .204/.307/.423 with 23 home runs and recorded a 1.5 fWAR. Not a bad season, but the weight of playing in New York seemed to have a significant impact as his career progressed.
Sanchez and Sanó have a similar approach at the plate. Both players can send the ball over the fence and strike out a lot. But calling them the same player isn’t exactly fair either.
Sanó has a higher ceiling when it comes to his power and hard-hit ability, but Sanchez has a higher floor when it comes to his discipline at the plate. That’s not to say he can’t hit the ball hard, just that his average exit velocity doesn’t quite stack up to Sanó’s.
FanGraphs isn’t as high on Sanchez’s bounce-back odds compared to Urshela. They project him finishing close to last season’s stats with a .209/.306.433 slash line and 23 homers. That won’t fill the void left by Nelson Cruz. However, if he can outperform expectations, it could be a big boost for the Twins lineup.
Sanchez is also a liability on defense. He has played almost his entire career as a catcher. In 2021, Sanchez recorded a minus-10 DRS while allowing 50 stolen bases. Minnesota picked up Jose Godoy last week, so the Twins won’t have to rely on Sanchez’s ability behind the plate. Defense has been an issue for him, but he will be penciled in as the team’s designated hitter. That will allow Sanchez to focus on turning things around at the plate and give him a fresh slate in a much more laid-back environment than in New York.
The Twins are hoping they have two buy-low options to use in what appears to be a talented lineup. Urshela and Sanchez won’t be top of the lineup thumpers, but they could still contribute in big ways towards the bottom of the lineup. It’s a gamble, even if both players were important contributors on impressive Yankees teams over the last handful of seasons.
Whether or not Urshela and Sanchez are long-term options for the Twins has yet to be seen. One thing is for sure, they’ll be getting plenty of playing time to try and turn things around.