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Where DJ LeMahieu’s defense is most valuable

The Yankees’ MVP in 2019 can play around the diamond, but is there more value in locking him into one role?

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into 2020, the Yankees’ team MVP is an unlikely one. DJ LeMahieu burst onto the scene after arriving in free agency from Colorado, flashing excellent defense on top of a plus-bat that found power away from Coors Field. The team brought him in on a two-year deal looking to serve a high-usage utility role and ended up with a core piece of their lineup.

As things stand, LeMahieu is lined up to move back into a more traditional role. He slots in as the starting second baseman with Gleyber Torres shifting over to shortstop following the departure of Didi Gregorius. This arrangement will allow the team to plug in strong defense and pop in their bats across the diamond, but it removes the likelihood of a strategy they leaned on last year, which was having LeMahieu spell starters in every role except shortstop.

LeMahieu turned out to be defensively savvy enough to play wherever the Yankees needed him, but this decision may be for the best. The defensive value he provides at his natural position is vastly different from what he was able to produce covering third and first. LeMahieu recorded a 4.0 UZR in 579.2 innings at second, while only managing 0.2 UZR in 400 innings at the hot corner. First base was even more of a stretch as he had only played 13 innings in the majors there prior, and wound up recording -0.7 UZR in 262 innings.

The argument could be made that LeMahieu could improve on those results with another year adjusting to the role, but he wasn’t even at his peak performance at second while bouncing around spots. LeMahieu put up a monstrous 11 UZR season in 2018 with the Rockies while playing exclusively second base. That season remains an outlier for his career, but perhaps with consistency on defense he can repeat the 7.5 UZR he put up in 2014, which was also the season where the Rockies stopped attempting to move him around the diamond.

Having him play the super-utility role also requires another starting caliber second baseman to plug in when LeMahieu isn’t there, something that could be more feasible with the addition of the 26th man on the regular roster. Unfortunately for the Yankees, their depth at the position doesn’t contain any options that could live up to the production that LeMahieu or Torres were giving them. Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada are on the active roster currently and would be good options to compete for the backup infielder spot, but giving them a majority of starts this year seems like a counterproductive move.

Let’s assume that the Yankees have room on the payroll to be active on the free-agent market still and pick up a second baseman to fit the scheme then. The options out there include some players with average bats, like Brian Dozier and Brock Holt, as well as some good defenders like Jason Kipnis, but nobody available at this point puts the whole package together like LeMahieu does. Realistically, the budget after signing Cole and re-signing Gardner probably doesn’t leave room for significant additions anyway, so solving the puzzle this way is a longshot.

Simply put, the Yankees lucked their way into a fantastic second baseman by picking up LeMahieu for the reasons they did last offseason. It allowed them to absorb the loss of a quality shortstop in Gregorius and still field an excellent infield, and that’s the best option going forward.