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Perspectives: The Return of LeMahieu, The Arrival of Kluber

By Paul Semendinger

January 17, 2011


We’ll do this in bullets today. I have a lot of thoughts on the signing of D.J. LeMahieu and the signing of Corey Kluber:

I am, probably to the surprise of many, glad that D.J. LeMahieu is returning to the Yankees. At least one some levels. I like D.J. as a player (see the next bullet point) but I did not want to see the Yankees invest $20m + a year in a player about to hit his decline years. At $15m annually, even if it for six years, I’m not opposed to the deal. D.J. LeMahieu promises to be, at least for the first few years of the contract, a good bargain at $15m annually.

I like D.J. LeMahieu. I think he’s an excellent ballplayer. He’s been a great Yankee. I am glad he wants to remain a Yankee (and will). It’s always a plus when teams have players who want to be there. LeMahieu now has a chance to be an all-time Yankee great. He could be a key piece to a few championships. My opposition to the Yankees re-signing him was never about him as a player. Who wouldn’t want a player of his skills on the team? I was opposed to the Yankees spending their remaining capital on D.J. LeMahieu, a player who I believe will be soon entering his decline years. People sometimes mistake honest evaluation for criticism or a dislike of a player. It’s not that. My opposition to signing D.J. had many facets, one of which was the fact that I don’t believe he will be a $20m a year player, going forward.

Guess what, no team thought D.J. LeMahieu was a $20m per year player going forward. I was correct on that point. D.J. LeMahieu at $15m makes much more sense sense. He didn’t make sense at $20m+ per year.

Many are praising Brian Cashman for the great job he did, holding the line, staying firm with D.J. LeMahieu to settle for so much less. In that, Cashman did a great job. He retained a star player for minimal cost. That’s outstanding work. He deserves a ton of praise for getting the job done so well. Absolutely.

But, the fact that the Yankees are saving money in and of itself does not really matter to me. I don’t care, one bit, about how much money a player costs the Yankees. I wouldn’t mind if the Yankees put out a team with twenty-six $30m per year players. In fact, I’d love that. I’d love to have a superstar at every position. The ONLY reason I care about LeMahieu’s salary isn’t on LeMahieu’s end, it ‘s on the Yankees’ end. The Yankees seem so focused on the luxury tax that it has become a hard salary cap to them. The Yankees have put a limit on what they are willing to do to put the best team forward. The only reason that it’s good that LeMahieu signed for so little is because it allows the Yankees to (hopefully) address some of their other needs (pitching, line-up balance, and the bench) before reaching their self-imposed spending limit.

The Yankees have put a limit on how much they will invest in winning. Of course, the Yankees want to win, but they want to win only if they can win within the parameters of their own budget. That is a very fair position for the Yankees to take, but when they have albatross contracts that prevent them from acquiring players, it becomes problematic. We have seen this play out numerous times over the years. If D.J. was signed for more than $20m annually, his contract would have most likely become a reason why the Yankees wouldn’t have secured another player that would have been able to help them at the time. This would have been true especially at the back end of LeMahieu’s deal. I don’t see that happening as much now. It will be easier for the Yankees to work around $15m when that time comes.

The self-imposed salary cap has cost the Yankees some great players and opportunities in recent years. Justin Verlander could have been a Yankee in late 2017. Instead he went to the Astros, went 5-0 down the stretch, and helped pitch them to a World Series championship.. Two seasons ago, Patrick Corbin was available. The Yankees passed. He helped pitch the Nationals to a championship. Those are just two examples.

Given the choice between winning the World Series or staying under the luxury tax cap, the Yankees have chosen staying under the luxury tax. They seem to be operating with that same mindset this winter. The Yankees want to win. They have a very high payroll. They are also hampered by some bad deals and bad contracts and they allow those bad deals and bad contracts to impact their ability to get the best players at important times.

None of these deals can be looked at in isolation. I was all for trading for Giancarlo Stanton because I thought that signified that the Yankees were going all-in. If I knew that that contract would prevent them from going after other players, I wouldn’t have been for that trade. Given the choice, I would have preferred the Yankees wait to sign Bryce Harper. That same logic is why I didn’t want to see the Yankees invest in an aging second baseman, so matter how good he has been the last two seasons. The money spent on D.J. LeMahieu is money they cannot spend somewhere else.

If the Yankees don’t win it all in 2021 or 2022 and D.J. LeMahieu’s contract is something that becomes a roadblock to winning, especially as he ages, and it no longer a great player, it will not be a great contract. That has been my concern all along – how this contract will impact the Yankees’ financial decision making going forward. If that next great pitcher is available at the season’s eleventh hour and the Yankees don’t get him because their 35-year-old second baseman is too expensive, that will be frustrating for me as a fan.

It was suggested that I owe Brian Cashman an apology since he resigned D.J. I don’t believe I have ever criticized Brian Cashman specifically ever on these pages, except to say that I wish he had more of a desire to feel the urgency to put out a championship team. I think Cashman is a great General Manager. Over the last many years, though Cashman (maybe under the order of his bosses) has playing the long game. I believe that that long game has resulted in a window of opportunity that is closing – probably quicker than most people realize. If the goal is World Series victories, this approach hasn’t been working.

Also, while the Yankees held firm to save money on LeMahieu’s contract, they let a ton, an absolute ton, of great talent go to other teams. Players were traded and signed who will help other teams win. These were players that could have helped the Yankees. Yes, Brian Cashman did great here. He got LeMahieu cheap. He didn’t make the 2021 Yankees better then the 2020 or 2019 team with this signing. This was a status-quo signing. Players that could have helped the Yankees have already been dealt this winter. The Yanks sat on the sidelines while that happened.

Still, I am now optimistic that the Yankees will begin to address their needs. This signing hopefully gets the ball rolling in the right direction.

By signing D.J. LeMahieu to a long-term deal, the Yankees have effectively made Gleyber Torres their starting shortstop. They have to hope that Torres becomes a solid shortstop defensively. This is a big risk in the LeMahieu deal. D.J. has to play every day. His best position is second base. That’s where he’ll play, primarily, for the next many years. I do hope that the long-term deal doesn’t force the Yankees to keep him at second if Torres can’t handle shortstop or if his own performance drops significantly.

Joe Morgan is not D.J. LeMahieu and D.J. LeMahieu is not Joe Morgan and past performance is no guarantee of future results and all that, but the tale of Joe Morgan deserves at least one more mention. There wasn’t a team that wouldn’t have wanted Joe Morgan in 1977. He had just come off back-to-back MVP seasons where he batted .327/17/94 (1975) and .320/27/111 (1976) and was helping to lead the Big Red Machine to two World Series. Morgan was great. He was a winner. He was a superstar punching his ticket to the Hall-of-Fame. After 1976, his second MVP, Joe Morgan never hit .300 again. He’d hit 22 homers in 1977 and then he’d never hit more than 16 in a season ever again. Joe Morgan’s sharp decline began in his age-33 season… just the age LeMahieu will be in 2021.

What often looks great in the immediate moment, often doesn’t look as great long term.

I like D.J. LeMahieu. I am glad he’s a Yankee. I think he’ll do very well in 2021. I also think, quicker than player realize, that he’ll become a .280/8/75 player. That’s a nice player. It’s not a superstar. I truly believe that we have already seen the very best of D.J. LeMahieu. I hope I am very wrong about that.

I like the D.J. LeMahieu signing. It was the right thing to do – especially at the price he came at. I just don’t think it’s the game changer that so many feel it is.

I LOVE the Corey Kluber signing. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it. That is a game-changer. Absolutely. Corey Kluber moves the needle forward. Yes, yes, and yes. Absolutely. 100%.

I think that by September, Kluber and Gerrit Cole will be a strong #1 and #2 at the top of the rotation. Kluber wants to show that he’s not finished. He is also pitching for one last big pay day. He’ll earn every dollar he gets this year.

Great pitchers don’t forget how to pitch. Kluber will be an absolute force once he gets back in the groove. That might not happen until May though. There will be some growing pains at the start.

The Yankees will need Kluber to be a force in the playoffs. To that point, the Yankees should bring him along slowly at the start of the season.

Kluber is great. I am glad he decided to sign with the Yankees. This deal is all good and only good.

But, the Yankees still need one more starting pitcher. I am hearing rumblings of a trade with Cincinnati for Luis Castillo. That is the type of deal they need to make. Bring in a lock-down, absolutely great, no-doubt-about-it starting pitcher. By doing this they will take a ton of pressure off of Gerrit Cole who won’t have to carry the rotation alone. This will also take pressure off Corey Kluber so he can build himself back slowly. And it would take the pressure off Luis Severino coming back from his own missed seasons.

At this point, with the Yankees seemingly approaching their hard salary cap, I would rather the Yankees address the rotation where it is more difficult to find great pitchers than the bullpen. The Yankees have a ton of great young arms. Teams can build bullpens with unproven arms, especially kids that throw hard. It’s much more difficult to building starting pitchers than relief pitchers. If the Yankees get one more excellent starter, oh man, would they be in good shape.

Can you imagine, if they come back as they hopefully should what a post season rotation of Cole, Kluber, Severino, and Castillo would look like? To me it would look like a World Championship.

The excitement that comes from player signings energizes a fan base. Everyone is talking Yankees again. This can carry a fan base for weeks and weeks. It makes the winter more exciting. It is to baseball’s great detriment that the big players wait longer and longer to sign each winter.

Let’s Go Yankees!


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