Urshela's Bat Gains Ground On Superb Glove

ZEBULON, N.C.—No major league organization has an academy in Colombia, and only a third of teams employ full-time scouts in the country. The unstable and dangerous conditions in Colombia serve to deter most clubs from seeing the country's finest players. 

Despite these circumstances, Indians third base prospect Giovanny Urshela is determined to honor his country and reach the major leagues. The 20-year-old plays for high Class A Carolina this season.

"We don't have many players from Colombia," Urshela said, "but I practiced with (brothers) Orlando and Jolbert Cabrera and I want to follow them to the major leagues."

Because of the paucity of scouts in his homeland, Urshela's trainer taxied him to neighboring Venezuela and across the Caribbean Sea to the Dominican Republic so that evaluators could see him. After showcasing his talents abroad, the 16-year-old Urshela signed with Cleveland for $300,000 in July 2008.

In a country dominated by soccer, Urshela love for baseball is a rarity. "Almost everybody plays soccer growing up, and not many play baseball," he said. "My father loved soccer—it was his favorite—but I loved baseball since I first played at age 8. I chose baseball."

He wasn't alone. Colombia produced four major leaguers in the 1990s, including first-division shortstops Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria, but the talent well dried up in the first 10 years of the 2000s. During that time only reliever Emiliano Fruto reached the big leagues, and even then he did so for just 23 appearances with the 2006 Mariners.

The retirements of Cabrera and Renteria following the 2011 season did not make them the last of the Colombian family line in the big leagues, however. The country has graduated five players to the majors in the past four seasons, including Ernesto Frieri in 2009 and Julio Teheran in 2011. White Sox lefty Jose Quintana, Marlins utilityman Donovan Solano and Nationals catcher Jhonatan Solano all have debuted this season. The Indians believes Urshela could one day join them.

"I believe he can be an everyday big league player," Carolina hitting coach Scooter Tucker said. "He has quick hands, good power, and he is a very gifted player defensively."

Urshela is an immensely talented third baseman who has drawn accolades for his strong arm—the best in the Indians system in 2010— and low Class A Midwest League managers deemed him the circuit's best defensive third baseman last season. Urshela has legitimate Gold Glove potential because groundballs quietly disappear into his glove, and he has the soft, fluid hands that bestows managers with confidence.

"I managed Matt Dominguez when I was with the Marlins and he is special," Mudcats manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "And Giovanny is the same type of defender. He has the ability to slow the game down defensively, and that is so rare."

Defenders the caliber of Dominguez or Urshela can advance through the minors primarily because of their ability to prevent runs, but Urshela is more than just a defensive stalwart. His bat has taken developmental strides.

Urshela flew under the prospect radar because heading into this season he sported a career .256/.290/.369 batting line across three seasons. This year he's holding his own as one of the youngest regulars in a tough Carolina League environment. Urshela has batted .260/.293/.397 with seven homers through 292 at-bats, showing a generally impatient approach but promising contact ability (with strikeouts in just 13 percent of plate appearances) and developing power.

Urshela's preternatural ability to make contact is a double-edged sword that can lead to an overly-aggressive approach. "His ability to put the bat on the ball is a plus and minus because sometimes he doesn't see a pitch he thinks he can't hit," Tucker said.

According to Rodriguez, the coaching staff has worked with Urshela to curtail his free-swinging ways, and he said they have made mechanical adjustments to the third baseman's lower half and to his hands. Because pitchers began pounding him inside, Urshela began holding his hands farther away from his head to shorten his swing path. Balance also had been an issue.

"When he thinks he can hit anything it causes him to lunge," Tucker said. "In drills we are working on him staying on the back side, keeping his hands inside the ball, and looking for the right pitch."

These mechanical adjustments coupled with work in the weight room that has pushed his weight to about 214 pounds have enabled Urshela to scratch the surface of his power potential. "He has as much power as anyone on the team," Tucker said. "He just doesn't always know how to use it—but that's just a matter of getting at-bats. Because he has a strong lower half, he has 15-18 home run potential."

Baseball in Colombia may be on the upswing, and not only due to Urshela's development. In early July the Diamondbacks signed catcher Oswaldo Garcia, arguably the nation's top talent available this year.

"The last couple of years (teams) have signed more players," Urshela said, "and that has helped the popularity of baseball in the country."