Over the last two seasons — campaigns beset by injuries, uncertainty, and, ultimately, playoff disappointment — there have been few constants for the Yankees. Certainly one of them is DJ LeMahieu, the erstwhile Colorado Rockies second baseman who moved to the Bronx on a two-year, $24 million contract ahead of the 2019 season.
LeMahieu has been nothing short of brilliant for the Yankees, providing top-end defense (as well as versatility) and a thoroughly dependable bat in a lineup that has, at inopportune times, run cold. His 5.9 bWAR led the team in 2019 and he was, remarkably, better in this most recent, pandemic-shortened season. He led the squad again, with 2.9 bWAR in just 50 games. If you prorated that production over the 145 games he played in 2019, it would produce an MVP-caliber 8.4 bWAR (yeah, I know merely prorating is highly flawed, but you get my point: he was better!)
The fact that he played at such a high level while on a relative sweetheart contract should have made the Yankees front office blush with embarrassment every time he came up with a clutch hit. But come Oct. 31, those days are over. Barring the Yanks signing him to an extension in the interim, he will hit the free agent market and the man will be in line for a significant raise, both in years and dollars.
From LeMahieu’s perspective, a starting point of four or five years at $20 to $25 million is more than reasonable. Whether he can command that in an economic environment shrouded in Covid-related uncertainty remains to be seen, but if he does, would the Yankees be willing to offer that kind of a deal to a player who will turn 33 next July? It’s no slam dunk, despite their obvious admiration for him.
In the event the Yankees let LeMahieu walk out the door, what are there alternatives?
First off, it’s clear there isn’t an option in the organization to adequately replace LeMahieu’s middle infield production: neither Tyler Wade nor Thairo Estrada, the likeliest internal candidates, have proven they’re anything more than fringe major leaguers at this point.
However, LeMahieu’s departure would open the door for Gleyber Torres to shift back over to second base after a difficult season defensively at shortstop (you can check out Cooper’s analysis of Torres’ glove and what he’ll need to do to improve here.) That would mean the Yanks will be in the market for a shortstop, with a number of possibilities:
If Cleveland stays true to its cost-cutting form of recent years, they may look to trade Francisco Lindor, who has one more year of arbitration left (he agreed to a $17.5 million salary last year and would stand to get a raise next season) before hitting free agency. He had a down year offensively by his standards (102 OPS+ compared to a career average of 117) but he’s a switch-hitting shortstop about to turn 27 next month who was a minimum 5.0-bWAR player every season from 2016-19. He’s also strong defensively, finishing second this season among shortstops in Baseball Savant’s outs above average metric and ranking in the top five in that category three of the last four years. The question is how much Lindor would cost in a trade, especially considering he will hit free agency in one year.
A year removed from Tommy John surgery, old friend Didi Gregorius signed a one-year, $14 million deal with the Phillies last offseason hoping to rebuild his free agent value. He succeeded, at least on paper, slashing .284/.339/.488 (good for a 119 OPS+) with 10 homers in 237 plate appearances. Perhaps even more crucially, he appeared in all 60 of the Phillies’ games. He’ll be 31 next year, but he’s healthy and could be an interesting candidate for a Bronx reunion.
The Oakland Athletics’ Marcus Semien appeared to have finally come into his own during the 2019 season. At 28, he hit .285/.369/.522 (139 OPS+) with 33 home runs and seemed primed to capitalize on free agency following this year. Alas, he struggled to a paltry .223/.305/.374 (91 OPS+) in an abridged 2020, leaving his future up in the air (he’s also not helped by the fact that 2019 was a clear outlier in his career; it was the only season where he posted an OPS+ over 99). He’ll play most of next season at age 30 and is graded as a below-par defender by outs above average, so perhaps that should dissuade the Yankees from showing any serious interest. But he’s out there.
Considered the top defensive shortstop in the game for most of his career, the Los Angeles Angels’ Andrelton Simmons actually had a down year with the glove in 2020, registering a head-scratching -1 outs above average after posting a combined +44 the previous three years. That may be explained, at least partially, by an ankle injury he suffered at the beginning of the season, however. With his track record, giving him the benefit of the doubt seems appropriate. Assuming his defense remains elite, his offensive production (95 OPS+ last year and a career mark of 91) is passable, especially in a good lineup.
This represents a bit of a wildcard option, but it’s an intriguing one. Ha-seong Kim, currently playing shortstop for the Kiwoom Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization, will reportedly be posted to MLB this offseason. Turning just 25 this month, Kim has put up some impressive numbers in his KBO career: as of this writing, he’s hitting .310/.402/.530 with 28 home runs and 103 RBI in 580 plate appearances this season. It can be difficult to transpose a KBO player’s stat line into an MLB context, but FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski and his ZiPS model take a crack at it, with encouraging results for Kim. According to ZiPS, his current season would translate to .274/.345/.478 with 29 homers. Going forward, ZiPS projects Kim to be no worse than a 3.5 WAR player over the next five years in the majors. The KBO posting period will run from Nov. 10 to Dec. 14, so stay tuned.
Considering the Yankees’ options, doing whatever it takes to keep LeMahieu in pinstripes may still be the best course of action. But in this age of predictable unpredictability, it’s wise to have a Plan B.