Looking Ahead to the 2021 Yankees, Part 2: The D.J. LeMahieu Decision
by Paul Semendinger 10/26/20
This article is the second in the series of how I would build the 2021 Yankees.
In this series, I contend that there are six areas of focus the Yankees need to look at as they build toward next year.
In the first article, I gave an overview of each area below.
This article will focus on the Yankees’ biggest decision this off-season as everything else they do centers on this one move.
Future articles will focus on steps 4, 5, and 6.
My Six Areas of Focus for the 2021 Yankees
Brian Cashman remains General Manager, but I ask him to feel a bit more urgency and to leave the game strategy to the field manager.
Aaron Boone stays, but I ask him to stress fundamentals and team energy while leaving all of the on-field and in-game decisions to him. But, I also stress that he needs a veteran bench coach at his side.
Make a decision on Free Agent D.J. LeMahieu
Recognize that some popular or high upside Yankees players will have to be traded to give the lineup needed (and essential) balance.
Make a decision regarding the future of Gary Sanchez.
Find and acquire two top-of-the-rotation starters.
Step 3 – Make a decision of Free Agent D.J. LeMahieu
This decision is the one that every other off-season decision centers around. The Yankees have to determine what to do with D.J. LeMahieu.
Because of LeMahieu’s versatility, there are a host of options here, but the ultimate decision of what to do with LeMahieu will define the rest of the off-season. And when it comes to this decision, it seems that everyone has an opinion.
The opinions on LeMahieu run the gamut, but he man four ideas look something like this:
Letting LeMahieu walk and either moving Gleyber Torres to second base and acquiring a shortstop, or just acquiring a second baseman to replace LeMahieu
Signing LeMahieu to play second base for the next four to five years, and thus leaving Gleyber Torres as the Yankees’ shortstop
Signing LeMahieu to play first base and moving Gleyber Torres to second base (as part of this plan Luke Voit would be traded, possibly for a shortstop)
Signing LeMahieu to play second base and having Gleyber Torres move to third base (as part of this plan Gio Urshela would be traded)
Ultimately, it seems that the LeMahieu decision really impacts two players – D.J. LeMahieu himself and Gleyber Torres.
The position Gleyber Torres will play for the next several years depends entirely on the decision the Yankees make with LeMahieu. (I cannot imagine a scenario where the Yankees actually trade Gleyber Torres.) As such, the Yankees don’t have to just consider LeMahieu’s future over the next four to five years, they also have to consider Torres’ future when determining if it makes sense to bring LeMahieu back.
Let’s first look at D.J. LeMahieu.
Age – 32 (he will turn 33 in July 2021)
Contract Estimate in Years – 4 or 5
Contract Estimate in Annual Cost – At least $20m per year, possibly $25m+
The first big question the Yankees must answer is whether or not it is worth it to give at least 80 million dollars over at least four years to a player who will turn 36 over the years of the contract. Many “experts” (no one really knows) state that it will take at least five years to sign LeMahieu. This is his last best chance for a huge payday. A five year deal would bring LeMahieu to 37 years old.
The team that signs D.J. LeMahieu will be spending a ton of money on a great player who will be entering (possibly very quickly) his declining years.
If I were running the Yankees, this would give me great pause. Right at the start, it seems unwise to give a huge contract to a player who will soon be entering his decline phase.
On the other hand, as a Yankees these past two years, D.J. LeMahieu has been amazing. He is a Gold Glove caliber second baseman who can also play first base and third base. As a Yankee, D.J. LeMahieu has been an outstanding player. He is appropriately called “The Machine.” Playing mostly as the Yankees leadoff hitter, he has put up the following numbers:
.336/36/129 (batting average/home runs/runs batted in)
.386/.536/.922 (on-base pct./slugging pct./on base plus slugging pct.)
LeMahieu has played in 195 of the Yankees’ 222 games (87.8%) over 2019 and 2020
There is a very good chance that D.J. LeMahieu will be the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 2020.
Yes, D.J. LeMahieu has been amazing.
LeMahieu is also a hitter whose batting profile is unlike most of the other current Yankees’ right-handed sluggers. He does not strike out a ton. He hits his fair share of home runs, but he’s not an “all-or-nothing” slugger. The Yankees need this type of hitter in their lineup.
One has to wonder if the last two seasons were the best we will ever see of D.J. LeMahieu.
Prior to coming to the Yankees, LeMahieu’s numbers over seven years in Colorado were as follows:
Played in 80.9% of all games
Those are very good numbers, but they are not great. For Colorado, LeMahieu was very good, but he was not the great player that he has been these last two years. For example:
As a member of the Rockies, LeMahieu only twice hit more than 8 homers in a season (2016 with 11 and 2018 with 15).
For Colorado, LeMahieu failed to hit .300 in four of the seven seasons he played there.
RBIs are a flawed statistic, but D.J. LeMahieu never accumulated more than 66 in a season for Colorado.
The Yankees have to wonder if LeMahieu, especially as he ages, will revert to that player. There is no guarantee that he will continue to play at the level he has for the past two years. In fact, a good argument can be made that LeMahieu will not maintain his current level of production. Players usually revert to their career means. All of this is to say that we all might have seen the very best years of LeMahieu’s career.
There is also a school of thought that states that second basemen do not age well. D.J. LeMahieu seems to be at that age, 32 or 33, when even some of the best second basemen began their declines. For some of those players, the decline came fast. (Later this week, I’ll have a study on how some great second basemen over the last 50 years have aged.)
Now that we have examined D.J. LeMahieu’s age and career production, it is important to consider how signing him would impact on Gleyber Torres.
If the 2020 season indicated anything, it showed that Gleyber Torres is a below-average defensive shortstop. As a team looking to contend for the next several years, the Yankees will need to move Torres off of shortstop. The most logical place to move him is to the position where he had his best big league success – second base. (I think the idea of moving Torres to third base makes no sense. None. Gleyber Torres has never played third base in the big leagues. Further, in the entirety of his minor league career, he played all of 23 games at the hot corner.)
Gleyber Torres is one the Yankees’ shining stars. At 23-years-old, the Yankees need to give him a position where he can excel. The Yankees then need to leave him in that position for the next ten years. They cannot keep moving him around the diamond. The position where Gleyber Torres has played the best, and where he belongs going forward, is second base.
This puts Gleyber Torres’ career in direct conflict with D.J. LeMahieu’s. A team cannot have two starting second basemen.
The decision for the Yankees then becomes who they invest in at second base.
I think the choice is obvious – it’s Gleyber Torres.
As such, if Torres moves to second base, the only other position for D.J. LeMahieu would be first base.
This then begs the question, does D.J. LeMahieu hit well enough, and will he hit well enough, to justify a salary of over $20m per year to play first base? That is the decision the Yankees have to make.
From my perspective, I do not think that D.J. LeMahieu will hit well enough over the next four or five years to warrant the salary he will command to play first base. LeMahieu would play terific defense at first, but he power numbers will be wanting and I do believe, based on his historical track record, that he will hit with enough power to justify playing first base. The Yankees, in Luke Voit, also already have a power hitting first baseman who comes at a fraction of the salary that LeMahieu will command.
Summary and Conclusion –
D.J. LeMahieu has been an outstanding Yankee in his two seasons in New York.
D.J. LeMahieu performed at a level way above his career norms. He probably just had his greatest seasons. It is possible that these were his last two great seasons.
D.J. LeMahieu’s best position is the same one where the Yankees must put their future star, Gleyber Torres.
D.J. LeMahieu will not hit with enough power to be an everyday first baseman.
If I were making the decisions for the Yankees, and this is a difficult one to make, I would not resign D.J. LeMahieu. It is always better to let a player leave too soon than to have him for too long.
To be continued…..