East Coast Bias: Urshela’s Meteoric Rise, Juan Show-To, Unlikely Contenders

AL East

The Replacements, Part II

Remember The Replacements? The movie about a football team that went on strike, so the owner hired a new coach to find replacement players a week before their first game? A perfect analogy this is not, but the Yankees have been put in a similar situation. 2019 saw names like Gio Urshela, Cameron Maybin, Clint Frazier, David Hale, Mike Tauchman and Nestor Cortes all step in and help the organization win 103 games en route to a first-place finish and a trip to the ALCS.

More than a quarter of the way into the 2020 season and Aaron Boone is filming the sequel, with Brian Cashman moonlighting as talent director.

Giancarlo Stanton has a calf strain and will be missing three to four weeks. Aaron Judge looked like the American League MVP through 17 games but a calf injury landed him on the IL. DJ LeMahieu, the Yankees’ most consistent hitter, joined Judge and Stanton on the injured list with a thumb sprain after Saturday’s game against the Red Sox.

Have no fear, the Replacements are here.

It may be the same faces, but they continue to do what they do best: pick up the pieces.

Mike Tauchman entered Sunday’s game as the Yankees’ three-hitter despite being the team’s fourth outfielder entering the season (fifth if you count Stanton, who has primarily been DH). He picked up right where he left off last season, as he’s hitting a robust .357 in 46 plate appearances, accompanied by 146 OPS+ and an on-base percentage of .413.

Clint Frazier, a one-time top prospect, fell all the way to seventh on the outfield depth chart, and it appeared as though he would only see Major League at-bats if injuries forced the issue. In what has become a theme with the Yankees, that’s exactly what happened. Frazier, one of the more polarizing players on the roster, joined the Yankees the only way Red Thunder could – with a home run on the fourth pitch he saw. He’s done nothing but produce in his four games in the Bronx, collecting two home runs, three doubles and eight RBI in just 15 at-bats.

Mike Ford has provided some power in the lineup. Luis Avilan has stepped up in the back end of the bullpen, as has Hale.

The Yankees are known for their star power. But with players injured and the likes of Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez and Brett Gardner struggling, the team is still well on their way to a playoff berth – thanks to the replacements.

From Replacement to Star

Speaking of replacements, there was none brighter last season than Urshela, who became the everyday third baseman after Miguel Andujar injured his shoulder, limiting him to just 12 games.

Urshela, who appeared in 167 games over parts on three seasons with the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays, was always known for his slick fielding at the hot corner. Yankees evaluators thought there was potential in his bat, too, and Urshela awarded the ballclub with a downright dominant triple slash of .308/.356/.530 in 132 games.

I erred on the side of caution and was expecting Urshela to come back to earth in 2020. Instead, he’s turned me into a believer with his .866 OPS to go along with eight extra-base hits and 15 RBI.

Coupled with his Gold Glove-caliber defense, and he’s no longer just a replacement. He’s turning into a bona fide stud at the position.

I selected Anthony Rendon, Alex Bregman, Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Rafael Devers and Matt Chapman and compared Urshela, starting from Opening Day 2019 until present day.

In comparison, Urshela ranks second with 12.7% Brls/BBE (barrels per batted ball event).

In comparison, Urshela ranks third with a 132 OPS+.

In comparison, Urshela ranks third with a 132 wRC+.

In comparison, Urshela ranks fourth 41.6% hard-hit percentage.

In comparison, Urshela ranks fifth with a .369 wOBA.

He peppers the ball to all fields, including going the opposite way less than only Devers and Rendon. Both his batting average and BABIP top the list, and his glove isn’t so bad either…

Give the Yankees’ scouting department a ton of credit. They traded cash considerations to the Blue Jays for Urshela and is arbitration-eligible over the next three years.

Not bad for a starting third baseman that is looking more and more like one of the best the league has to offer.

Baltimore Britton

With all this talk about replacements, let’s finish this off with Zack Britton, who stepped into the closer role after Aroldis Chapman went down with COVID-19. It’s safe to assume Britton will never be as dominant as he was during a two-year stretch with the Orioles when he earned consecutive All-Star nods in 2015 and 2016, but he’s damn close in 2020.

Britton currently leads the league in saves and is doing so by allowing opposing hitters to bat just .138 against him. This is thanks in large part to his sinker, which is — erm — sinking at a career rate, resulting in a 33% soft contact percentage, his best since 2015.

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Chapman’s return is on the horizon, so Britton will be “losing” his job as closer. But that’s as good as a trade for the Yankees, giving the bullpen even more depth.

AL East Players(s) of the Week: The Baltimore Orioles

If the postseason was to start tonight, the Yankees would be matched up with the Baltimore Orioles.

That’s not a typo.

Who saw this coming? The O’s entered 2020 as one of the only teams that didn’t have a shot at the postseason. But the team sits at 12-9, including 5-2 record over the last week of games, thanks in large part to an offense that has four regulars in Pedro Severino, Hanser Alberto, Jose Iglesias and Renato Nunez hitting over .300 on the year. Alex Cobb has emerged as the team’s ace and should be a hot commodity come trade deadline while the bullpen has done its part, too. Kudos to the Orioles for making something out of nothing.

NL East

Franchise Players Old and New

The porch in right at Citi Field hangs over the lower-level seats, so that when a hitter deposits a ball into the right-field landing area, it definitely looks great, but it’s almost harder to hit a home run into the lower level.

But if you clear ALL the seats, that’s impressive full stop. Check out Juan Soto doing just that:

Poor Robert Gsellman. Pressed into starter duty because of injuries and opt-outs, he had to watch the Nationals’ wunderkind nearly leave the entire ballpark.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: If we’re talking about Washington tape-measure shots, we’re obligated to invoke The Capitol Punisher Frank Howard. As you were. –b.]

Soto, who missed the start of the season because of a positive coronavirus test, made up for lost time and then some during a dazzling week: a cool .462 average; an absurd .615 ISO; 5 home runs in 30 plate appearances; 12 runs; 12 RBI; a stunning 1.610 OPS; and a ridiculous .641 wOBA. Soto is the franchise now, and what a rep D.C. baseball has.

Their previous face (and hair) had himself a week, too. Bryce Harper hit .480/.567/1.447 (BA/OBP/OPS) with 2 home runs, 7 RBI, and 10 runs. When Harper is playing well, he seems to be moving twice the speed of the game around him, and he’s in that mode right now. Harper routinely took extra bases and collected a walk-off against the Mets midweek (with a little help from a great Roman Quinn slide/bad Wilson Ramos tag). He’s a constant threat: in 31 plate appearances, he reached base 18 times and helped the Phillies go 4-3 on the week (4-0 in the division).

Soto was part of the reason why Harper became expendable in Washington. It’s great to see him living up to the hype.

It’s equally great to see Harper live up to the hype that’s sometimes dogged him.

Good News for the Marlins

The Marlins are still without the majority of their Opening Day roster because of COVID. In eighth-ranked prospect Lewin Diaz’s first career start, he hit cleanup, which tells you a lot about where the roster is at the moment.

The good news is all 18 Marlins who missed time were cleared to return as of Sunday, and they’ll start coming back to the first-place Marlins soon enough.

Ace Attrition 

Max Scherzer missed time with a hamstring injury. Jacob deGrom was scratched from a start because of a neck issue. Marcus Stroman opted out. Mike Soroka suffered an extremely unfortunate Achilles tear. The NL East has some talented pitching, but like the rest of the league in 2020, their best hurlers have had some trouble staying on the mound.

A couple of guys have hung in there and excelled. Max Fried moved into the void left by Soroka’s devastating injury with aplomb. He opened the season 3-0 in five starts with a 1.24 ERA and a sub-1 WHIP, including a strong outing this week against Miami, spinning 6.1 shutout innings. He’s tied for the NL lead in pitcher fWAR and has thrown the most innings without giving up a home run in the senior circuit. He sports the ninth-lowest BABIP for NL pitchers with 20 or more innings and has yielded the sixth-highest soft contact rate. His barrel rate and hard-hit percentage are way down from career averages. He’s all over NL leaderboards.

And he’s usually behind Aaron Nola in nearly all of them. In two starts this past week, Nola went 2-0, throwing 15 combined innings of one-run, five-hit ball while striking out 18 and posting a measly .53 WHIP.

Philly’s bullpen is atrocious. Yet, as a total pitching unit, they’ve posted a positive fWAR on the strength of their starters (5th in the NL on fWAR), spearheaded by Nola’s fantastic start to the season. He gets lost in the annual deGrom-Scherzer Cy Young debate, but Nola is a true ace doing true ace things.

NL East Player of the Week: Juan Soto

With respect to Harper, who had the best week for arguably the best intra-division team, I’m going with Soto, because A) look at those numbers above, and B) just look at where this thing landed again:

Shouts to Harper, Nola, and Dominic Smith, but it was Soto’s week from start to finish.