From the moment New York’s season ended at the hands of the rival Red Sox in early October, Yankees fans anxiously awaited the start of the hot stove. Improvements were obviously needed, and there was no reason to believe that the required moves wouldn’t be made. It was simply a matter of waiting for Boston’s inexorable march to the championship to conclude, so that the dealing could commence.
Considering the state of the rotation, most assumed that the front office would sign the consensus top free-agent starter, Patrick Corbin. With a pair of generational hitters also hitting free agency, many fans further assumed that the club would pursue both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado — and hopefully sign at least one.
It hasn’t worked out that way so far. Although the Yankees met with Corbin, they never made him a formal offer before he signed elsewhere. The club met with Machado as well, but not Harper, and pundits and insiders don’t consider the Yankees to be a serious contender to sign either star.
The Yankees haven’t remained dormant, however. They re-signed Brett Gardner, CC Sabathia, J.A. Happ, and Zach Britton. They acquired James Paxton via trade, and inked free agents Adam Ottavino and Troy Tulowitzki. New York also made a somewhat surprising move by signing second baseman DJ LeMahieu to a two-year contract.
MLB Trade Rumors ranked LeMahieu at #33 on their list of top free agents, and predicted that the 30-year-old would garner a two-year deal worth $18 million. The Yankees topped that figure by $6 million, and blew past the luxury tax line to sign the glove-first player.
Reaction to LeMahieu’s signing was swift and brutal, mostly because he wasn’t the infielder that fans longed to see wearing pinstripes. Still, the fact that LeMahieu’s 3.0 WAR in 2018 was the highest among this winter’s acquisitions cannot be ignored. Could he actually prove to be the Yankees’ biggest signing this offseason? Under-the-radar moves have paid off for the team in the past, and this could be another one.
After his Bombers got swept by The Big Red Machine in the 1976 World Series, George Steinbrenner made it his mission to sign the offseason’s most-coveted free agent, Reggie Jackson. Steinbrenner got his man, and the former MVP and three-time world champion came through in a big way for the Yanks.
The club made another move two days before the start of the regular season, without which the two ‘70s titles might never have occurred, as unheralded shortstop Bucky Dent came over from the White Sox via trade. The defensive specialist finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting a few years before, and also made the All-Star team once. Other than that, he was largely unknown to Yankees fans — and he certainly didn’t carry the star power of Reggie.
Dent became a pinstripe legend anyway. After belting the three-run homer at Fenway Park to help the Yankees win Game 163 in 1978, he went on to claim World Series MVP honors that year. Besides those career-defining moments, Dent also represented the final addition to the great Yankees infield of that era. From 1977-80, Dent was the most valuable defensive player in all of baseball. His 11.3 dWAR during that span was by far the best of any player at any position.
Decades later, Scott Brosius arrived in the Bronx as the player to be named later in a prior deal that sent Kenny Rogers to Oakland. Brosius — a defense-first third baseman coming off a season during which he batted a scant .203 — went on to hit .300 for the Yankees and drive in 98 runs in his first year with the club. That breakout 1998 season culminated with World Series MVP honors.
More recently, unknown shortstop Didi Gregorius arrived via trade from Arizona to replace the retiring Derek Jeter. Didi has improved every year that he’s been with the club, becoming an important middle-of-the-order bat and team leader — not to mention a fan favorite — in the process.
I’m not offering any predictions about what LeMahieu might do as a Yankee, and I’m certainly not suggesting that the front office should end its pursuit of Machado. However, these lessons from the past do remind us that we shouldn’t pre-judge or jump to conclusions about guys we’re unfamiliar with or don’t have at the top of our wish lists. LeMahieu could very well prove to be an important under-the-radar move for the Yankees.