The time right before spring training is peak “extension season” around baseball. It’s the time when teams take stock of their pending free agents and figure out if it’s worth hammering out a contract extension, or letting the season play out in hopes of getting a larger sample size before committing to a big-money contract.
The Yankees are in an interesting spot, with several extension candidates. Chief among them is their multi-talented infielder, DJ LeMahieu. Entering his age-31 season, LeMahieu put together a career offensive year for the Yankees in 2019, while also being a versatile team player defensively. He authored some of the season’s defining moments, and became regarded as the most clutch player on the team, the one you’d want at bat in the ninth inning or the ball hit to with the bases loaded.
Don’t forget, there was some gnashing of teeth when the Yankees signed LeMahieu last offseason to a two-year, $24 million contract to essentially be a super-utility player. Despite not being in the Opening Day lineup, he led the team in plate appearances as he more than earned his perceived gaudy salary.
In fact, LeMahieu is currently the game’s fifth-highest paid second baseman at $12 million a year, behind only Jose Altuve, Robinson Cano, Dee Gordon and Dustin Pedroia. Two of those contracts are washes anyway, with Cano not worth anywhere close to the $24 million he’s earning anymore, and Pedroia having played nine total games since 2017. LeMahieu is not going to get anywhere near Altuve money ($29 million a year), but he should be able to blow by Gordon’s salary ($13.8 million) as he is a far superior player in every way except baserunning.
LeMahieu also isn’t used as strictly a second baseman, which could either help or hurt his bottom dollar. While it makes him more valuable, it also makes it harder to come up with comps for him, as second basemen usually make far less than first and third basemen do. Meanwhile, LeMahieu plays all three of those positions!
One interesting comparison for LeMahieu’s value is Ben Zobrist, the original super-utility man. Zobrist could play both the infield and the outfield, and signed a four-year, $56 million contract ($14 million AAV) at age 35 before the 2016 season. Now, LeMahieu is both younger than Zobrist and coming off an MVP-caliber season that Zobrist never touched. In that respect, LeMahieu should be looking bigger in terms of salary, if not the length, based on baseball’s current trends.
Based on his stellar 2019 season, LeMahieu could totally be looking at an AAV around $20 million. This puts the Yankees in an odd spot. They’d be completely lost in the infield without him, given his ability to play multiple positions and his spot as the club’s best contact and leadoff hitter. He’s incredibly important for the Yankees, but would also be valuable to other teams. If he hit the open market, other teams would certainly be interested and would open up their checkbooks for him.
In that respect, maybe the Yankees should capitalize on this exclusive negotiating window they currently have with LeMahieu. While he may never hit the highs of his 2019 campaign again, he’s no worse than a top-three second baseman in baseball, and the Yankees will have to pay him what he’s worth. Showing faith in LeMahieu now and signing him to an extension could slightly lower his price before he hits free agency, and it wouldn’t be a bad move for the Yankees either.
In the extremely unlikely event that LeMahieu was to leave after this season, who could the Yankees possibly put in his spot that would be able to do the things he does? LeMahieu has earned a big contract regardless of how this season goes, and if that’s the case, the Yankees would be better off opening negotiations now before he gets to hear how much other teams are willing to offer him.