DJ LeMahieu’s Role In 2022
By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: Rich Schultz, Getty Images
DJ LeMahieu has been an oft-discussed member of the Yankees’ core for both good and bad during his tenure with the team. In 2019 and 2020, LeMahieu was a pleasant surprise, producing at a level commensurate with baseball’s best players. The Yankees were impressed enough with his performance during his initial 2-year deal that he was given $15 million per year through his age-37 season when he re-signed last offseason. LeMahieu’s first year under his new deal was an obvious disappointment. By almost any metric, LeMahieu was a below-average hitter at the plate in 2021, and his defense continued the slight decline we saw in 2020. Surely, the Yankees will be looking for at least some bounce-back in 2022, as they will for other underperforming players from the 2021 season.
I have noticed much discussion already regarding DJ LeMahieu’s role in 2022, and that is a an incredibly important question that Brian Cashman must answer this offseason. LeMahieu’s most natural and traditional position is 2B, but one would expect that Gleyber Torres will get a chance to prove that he deserves the full time job over there in 2022, barring an unexpected trade.
Before I go any further, I want to unequivocally state that I am 100% in favor of hanging on to Gleyber Torres and letting him play 2B every day. I recognize that Torres has been a source of significant frustration since the beginning of the shortened 2020 regular season, but Torres is still young, with years of team control remaining, and has tools that remain from his early years of successful play as a Yankee. Despite the fact that Torres was awful in 2021, many would be surprised to see his batting line from July 17th on this year: .295/.345/.466, 6 HR, 8 SB. If Torres so much as produces at that rate while playing average-ish defense at 2B, he’s somewhere between an above-average regular and the star we expected him to be as he began his MLB career. LeMahieu cannot block Torres from playing 2B, as he did coming into 2021.
This would seemingly force the Yankees’ hand: LeMahieu then can only slot in at 3B or 1B. I have seen multiple proposals for starting LeMahieu at each of those positions, but problems remain with each. I have remained steadfast in my opinion that starting LeMahieu at 1B everyday would tank almost any value that LeMahieu has as a regular. To put it more bluntly: if LeMahieu performed as he did in 2021 at the plate, he would certainly produce a negative WAR if he played all of his defensive innings at 1B, due to the positional adjustment we must take into account when calculating WAR, and given that his defense at 1B is average, at best.
3B is certainly a possibility, but Gio Urshela remains a Yankee, and his best defensive position is 3B. The metrics are all over the map on Urshela’s defense at 3B, with some (like Statcast) rating him among the worst defensive 3B in baseball since 2019, while others, like Defensive Runs Saved or Total Zone Rating, intermittently rate him quite positively, but my eye tells me that Urshela is a good (occasionally great) defensive 3B, and significantly better than DJ LeMahieu there. I also believe that a completely healthy Gio Urshela will go back to hitting like he did from 2019 through June in 2021. So, I’d rather have Urshela there.
So, what to do with LeMahieu? Well, one of the things that Brian Cashman said at his press conference last week was that he wanted to give Aaron Boone a more flexible roster, one that he could play with day-to-day. A good way to start would be to go back to an idea from prior to the start of the 2019 season: make DJ LeMahieu a super utility player that gets close to 500 AB.
Everyone in the 2021 infield got banged up at some point, though few played through more injuries in 2021 than DJ LeMahieu, who we know played through at least the latter month and a half of the season with a sports hernia and a strained triceps that kept him from playing 3B for much of the summer. For all of the discussion about load management for the Yankee stars, LeMahieu probably can thrive using the same treatment as he ages. Through managing LeMahieu’s playing time, the Yankees can also ensure that the rest of the infield gets rest as well. It would not be difficult to theoretically get LeMahieu a game at each position in the infield (other than SS and catcher) at least once per week, and he could even get a 4th game each week if Urshela were to spell a SS to be named later once per week. And when someone inevitably gets hurt? LeMahieu is better equipped to step into the everyday lineup at a single position than guys like Tyler Wade or Andrew Velasquez.
Making DJ LeMahieu a super utility player improves both the Yankee starting lineup and the bench in 2022, even if he only bounces back slightly from his numbers in 2021. Money aside, it just makes too much sense, and it is a great first step towards making the Yankees a much deeper roster in 2022.