The Offseason of My Discontent
The Yankees recent decision to sign DJ LeMahieu to a two year $24 million contract has been primarily read as an indication that the Yankees are no longer pursuing Manny Machado. If that is true, that is a mistake on the part of the Yankees, but that analysis misses another point about the LeMahieu signing. Regardless of whether the Yankees continue to pursue Machado or not, signing LeMahieu is counterproductive and suggests a team that is directionless.
LeMahieu has proven himself to be a useful ballplayer. He is an excellent fielding second baseman who other than what now seems to be a pretty fluky 2016 season (when he slashed.348/.416/.495), is a below average offensive contributor whose career OPS+ is 88. If the Yankees were a good team with a hole at second base, this signing would make sense, but that is not the case. The Yankees have a great young second baseman in Gleyber Torres. Additionally, the Yankees biggest defensive weakness is at third base, so if they were going to sign a defense first backup infielder, it would have made much more sense to get one whose primary position was third, not second, base.
The Yankees have claimed that LeMahieu was not signed to start at second, but rather to play several different infield positions as needs arise. The problem with this approach is that once you take LeMahieu off of second, you get an unproven defender at the other three positions. Over the course of his eight year career, LeMahieu has played a grand total of 49 games at positions other than second base, and has not played a single game anywhere but the keystone sack since 2014. Parenthetically, the idea of playing LeMahieu at first base is pretty dreadful as he has proven that he cannot hit like a big league first baseman. Moreover, if LeMahieu is actually going to be used in this utility man role, he will amount to a modest, but costly, upgrade from Ronald Torreyes. Flexibility is very important in baseball today, especially given the small benches most teams have so that they can carry 12 or 13 pitchers. LeMahieu seems like a step in that direction but because of his limited offensive value, his power numbers in Coors Field notwithstanding, he doesn’t really help the Yankees develop the kind of flexibility we have seen from say the Dodgers in recent years.
in addition to his role as an overpriced backup infielder, LeMahieu could provide some value playing second if Torres moves to short until Didi Gregorius comes back from his injury. That would be a decent plan if Troy Tulowitzki is no longer able to contribute at shortstop, but it is worth first giving Tulo a shot as he has a much higher upside, particularly on offense, than LeMahieu.
The real problem with the signing is that even the Yankees don’t give two year $24 million dollars for players to be backups and only play part time. By essentially turning over Torreyes roster spot to a slightly better, but much more expensive, player, the Yankees have put themselves in a position where they will give LeMahieu more opportunities to play. LeMahieu can be useful on the Yankees if used sparingly as a real backup, but taking plate appearances from Andujar or Torres to give to LeMahieu would be a big mistake. The problem is worse than that because of the possibility that the first time Gleyber Torres has a few bad games in a row, Aaron Boone will feel the need to play LeMahieu at second. The impact of that on the team would be a net negative, but the messaging to Torres and to other young players will be worse.
The LeMahieu signing is a bit reminiscent of the trade for Brandon Drury last off-season. Drury was a useful player much like LeMahieu, but the Yankees vastly overstated his value to their fan base by suggesting he could be an everyday third baseman on a contending team. The Yankees made the best of that situation by swapping Drury for half a season of JA Happ, but it will be more difficult to move LeMahieu because of the contract the Yankees have just given him.
The larger problem picture problem with the LeMahieu signing is that it increases the changes that the Yankees will come away from this off-season without Harper or Machado and somehow trying to catch up with Boston by adding a backup infielder and a good starting pitcher. Additionally, it suggests an ownership that is reluctant to spend what is necessary to win, while still worshiping at the false altar of the “proven veteran.” That is a pretty toxic combination. It is probably necessary to overpay for top free agent talents like Machado or Bryce Harper, but overpaying for players who are not likely to make an impact is the mark of a mediocre front office, or one that is not really trying anymore.
Photo: cc/Keith Allison