Yankee fans remember the DJ LeMahieu signing as a confusing move by a team that already had enough infielders and were in the middle of a pursuit of then free-agent Manny Machado.
A high average, low everything else hitter coming from Coors Field? His role was originally going to be a versatile defensive player and an average bat, and that’s what the Yankees paid him to be, inking him for only 2 years and 24 million dollars.
Things changed quickly though, as the Yankees dealt with a historic amount of injuries, and LeMahieu quickly saw his name in the lineup everyday. He did not disappoint at all.
LeMahieu finished the 2019 season as the Yankees’ leadoff hitter with a 136 wRC+, .375 wOBA and 5.4 fWAR. He finished 4th in MVP voting and quickly emerged as a fan favorite due to his low strike-out, opposite field approach on a team stacked with pull and strikeout happy hitters.
Within 3 months of becoming a starter, fans were calling for an extension, and rightfully so.
The biggest question was whether or not he would repeat his success or if he was just a one year wonder. With the shortened 2020 season, the only thing we can turn to is the small sample size of 2020, in which LeMahieu has gotten off to a monster start, posting a 201 wRC+ and 0.6 fWAR in only 35 PA’s. It’s obvious he won’t keep that pace up, but it shows the type of bat he has developed into.
Since he may not be a flash in the pan after all, the question remains: Do the Yankees extend DJ LeMahieu?
I know what you’re thinking. “With everything he’s turned into, why on earth would the Yankees not bring him back? It seems like the obvious choice.”
The thing is, you’re right. An extension is absolutely the easy choice… if he was on any of the other 29 MLB teams, except maybe the Dodgers. But no decision is ever easy for the Yankees.
The Yankees find themselves with the same “problem” year after year, and 2020 is no different. Excluding Gary Sanchez at catcher, the team has 14 starting caliber players and only 7 spots to play them, 8 if you count the DH.
The thing you notice right away is that the Yankees have so many players with positional versatility, and their depth is amazing.
Now this is where DJ LeMahieu comes into play. From 2015-17 he only played second base for the Rockies. Since coming over to the Yankees, he has added first and third base to his positional depth, giving the Yankees amazing positional flexibility with one of their best bats.
Aside from the fact that LeMahieu is going to be 33 and probably want a decently large payday, the real issue with an extension lies with something, or rather someone, that has nothing to do with Lemahieu himself. The issue lies with his middle infield counterpart: Gleyber Torres.
Torres has been extremely unimpressive at shortstop and has made people everywhere question his long-term position at shortstop, meaning he would need to be moved to either second or third base, where his apparent lack of range would play much better.
Let’s say they extend DJ. Would Gleyber move to second, pushing DJ to first or the bench? If he went to first base, then what about Luke Voit and Mike Ford? You could DH them, but then Stanton goes to left field, and then there’s no room for Tauchman, Gardner, or Frazier (whom the Yankees say they still view as an everyday MLB player). See the problem?
The same issue would happen if you move Torres to third. Urshela would lose his position, and then they would need to find a place for him as his bat has become vital for the Yankees.
Tons of starting caliber players, nowhere to put them.
If Torres stays at shortstop and the Yankees just accept the potentially abysmal glove at shortstop, then the issue goes away. However the Yankees seemed to have changed their stance on defense in recent years, having a string of players who can save runs on defense just as well as they can provide runs on offense.
Moving Torres seems like it’s inevitable, and that would leave shortstop open for the Yankees, which is where this really gets interesting.
People thought the Yankees’ big spending days were behind them when they consistently let top free-agents sign with other teams even though they’re in the middle of a contention window. They traded for Stanton and his contract, but that was a special case where a superstar coming off an MVP season basically fell into their lap. They let Machado, Harper, Corbin and more sign with other clubs, and went after guys like DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela.
Then Gerrit Cole became a free-agent and the Yankees gave out the largest contract in franchise history, which means they’ll spend the money for the players they feel they actually need.
Here’s the free agent shortstops available after the 2021 season: Francisco Lindor. Trevor Story. Carlos Correa. Corey Seager.
That’s right. Arguably the 4 best shortstops in baseball are all scheduled to become free agents at the same time.
It’s almost guaranteed that Lindor, Story and Correa all reach free agency, however Seager may end up re-upping with the Dodgers, as the Dodgers don’t typically let their star players walk.
I would also be thoroughly shocked if Correa ever ended up in pinstripes, for obvious reasons.
It’s hard pressed to think the Yankees won’t be in for any of these players, and signing them would give them the option of adding a superstar shortstop while maximizing Torres’ defensive abilities.
Here’s where it gets extremely challenging: Do the Yankees let LeMahieu walk and go with a stop gap at shortstop until 2022? Do they keep DJ and then deal with an even bigger roster crunch if they pursue one of the top shortstops?
The answer isn’t clear, as a lot of things have to happen in order for letting LeMahieu walk make sense. But what is clear, is that letting DJ walk could open up a lot of interesting and exciting possibilities for the Yankees.
The bottom line is, it seems like a bad idea for a team to let one of their best hitters walk based on the idea that they may be able to sign a player the following offseason. If they keep LeMahieu and sign one of the superstar shortstop’s, then the only option would be to trade some of the depth for another position of need.
You may be laughing at the thought this is described as a problem, but the reality is that it IS a problem.
It’s a very, very good problem to have.