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The Yankees hope DJ LeMahieu can shore up a shaky defensive infield

Without Didi Gregorius for at least half the season, the Yankees needed some kind of defensive stability in the infield. Will their latest signing fit the bill?

Divisional Round - Colorado Rockies v Milwaukee Brewers - Game One Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It wasn’t the infield signing that many Yankees fans hoped it would be, but the Bombers did sign free agent second baseman DJ LeMahieu to a two-year deal last week, going over the luxury tax threshold to do so. No, not by as much as they would have if they signed Manny Machado, but given the team’s recent strategy, taking on financial penalties is at the very bottom of the team’s wish list. So why go over for LeMahieu, while leaving Machado on the market to field eight-year offers from other interested teams?

The answer likely lies with defense. LeMahieu figures to bring plenty of questions about his offensive capabilities, considering his only above average offensive season came in 2016, when a fortunate .388 BABIP helped him take home the batting title. Aside from that outlier, LeMahieu has been consistently mediocre while playing his home games in a park that usually helps hitters appear to be above average. Again, the Yankees aren’t acquiring LeMahieu primarily for his bat, although there could be some potential upside given his hard contact rates, which Josh broke down last week.

The Yankees coveted LeMahieu for his glove more so than his bat, and for good reason. DRS pegged LeMahieu for 18 runs above average last season, and 67 runs above average for his career at second base. Reports indicate that the Yankees see LeMahieu becoming the team’s own version of Ben Zobrist, though LeMahieu has hardly played any position other than second since 2014. Still, given his fielding skills, he would probably be an upgrade regardless of what position the Yankees slot him at, which has as much to do with the Yankees’ shaky infield as it does LeMahieu’s solid range and glove.

The Yankees’ infield struggles aren’t a secret. Highlighted by Miguel Andujar’s DRS of -25 last season, one of the worst recorded seasons ever, the team has plenty of question marks around the diamond, especially with Didi Gregorius on the shelf for the first half of the season. With the team’s infield anchor recovering from Tommy John surgery, let’s take a look at the DRS of the rest of the Yankees’ infield, based on their 2018 and career numbers.

Yankees infield, by DRS

Player 2018 DRS
Player 2018 DRS
Miguel Andujar -25
Gleyber Torres -1
Greg Bird -3
Luke Voit -7
Troy Tulowitzki** 0
** 2017 total, DNP in 2018

Tulowitzki was a much better fielder earlier in his career, but age and a plethora of injuries make him as much of a question mark as the rest of the Yankee infield, which clearly lacks in fielding quality as far as advanced metrics are concerned. Torres, the team’s best returning infielder, was still below league average during his first full season at the keystone. Voit had a small sample size, though it’s concerning that he was able to rack up such a poor defensive rating in such a short span of time. Clearly, the Yankees needed help in the infield.

Recent signings other than LeMahieu have made bringing in a slick fielder more important. Zach Britton, now returning on a three-year deal, induces more groundballs than just about any pitcher in the league, while Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia also produce buckets of outs via grounders. Sabathia’s groundball tendencies led Aaron Boone to sit Miguel Andujar in the ALDS, which highlights the infield concerns. Those concerns will be back in 2019, and the Yankees must be hoping that LeMahieu will ease some of them.

On a side note, for those wondering, Machado holds a career DRS of 84 runs above average at third base, and was eight runs above average at shortstop for the Dodgers last year, to go along with his 146 OPS+, so he wouldn’t exactly be a bad choice either to improve the defense. In any event, if LeMahieu can adapt to a multi-position role, he should be able to help shore up a what was a weakness for the Yankees in 2018.