The Yankees enter this offseason with a handful of critical decisions. First and foremost atop their laundry list of needs should be the re-signing of DJ LeMahieu. Yes they need pitching, and yes they may be operating on a budget, but you just do not let the team MVP of the last two seasons walk.
LeMahieu was one of Brian Cashman’s most brilliant signings, rewarding the Yankees GM’s trust in him by winning two straight Silver Slugger awards, two top-four MVP finishes, and becoming the first player in the modern era to win the batting title in each league. I don’t need to give an exhaustive breakdown of what makes LeMahieu so valuable, so I’ll just leave you with this: since donning pinstripes, DJ is tenth in MLB in OPS (.922) and wRC+ (146) and 12th in fWAR (7.8). Bringing back LeMachine would appear to be a no-brainer, a forgone conclusion even. But what if I told you that recent history would suggest otherwise?
The first and most obvious place to look is Robinson Canó’s free agency. In fact, LeMahieu’s free agency is eerily similar to that of the former star Yankee second baseman. Both were Gold Glove-caliber defenders and easily the best hitters at the keystone in the league entering the market on the wrong side of 30. We all know how that saga turned out, with Canó inking a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners that far eclipsed the seven years and $175 million the Yankees were offering. The way the Yankees approached those negotiations may bode ominous for how they handle talks with LeMahieu.
Adding to these fears is the suggestion by Hal Steinbrenner that the Yankees may tighten the belt this winter after losing substantial revenue to the COVID-19 shortened season. According to Joel Sherman, the Yankees may even try to slip below the $210 million CBT threshold next season to reset their tax penalties. This would almost certainly take them out of the running for LeMahieu, as he may command a contract north of $20 million AAV, and the Yankees have more dire needs to address — namely, pitching.
There is also the sticky situation of the Yankees’ long-term shortstop plans. Brian Cashman was hesitant to name Gleyber Torres as the out-and-out incumbent at short moving forward in his year-end press conference. Recent rumors linking the Yankees to Andrelton Simmons and Francisco Lindor via trade lend credence to the notion that Cashman is unsold on the idea of Torres as the everyday shortstop of the future.
This only further complicates a potential reunion with LeMahieu. If Torres is not the answer at short, he would slot over to second where his defensive shortcomings are less of a liability. This leaves LeMahieu without a spot in the infield, barring a trade of the much more affordable Luke Voit or Gio Urshela. In that scenario, the Yankees would delay a large infield expenditure until the free agent shortstop bonanza of next offseason.
Indeed, there exists a precedent of the Yankees dipping below the luxury tax threshold in anticipation of heavily investing in an area of need in the near-future. The Yankees have passed on clear upgrades to the roster while waiting for a bigger fish, including when they recently avoided the tax in 2018 while gearing up to be active players in the Manny Machado/Bryce Harper sweepstakes.
However, when it became clear that the likes of Machado and Patrick Corbin would not sign at the Yankees’ desired price, despite the clear improvement those two offered the team, they pivoted to the biggest prize of all: Gerrit Cole. And so we come full circle. DJ LeMahieu has been immensely valuable to the Yankees, and there is every indication he would continue to be so if he were brought back. However, the Yankees may have identified shortstop as a more pressing need, and may therefore be willing to pass on LeMahieu if it means they can secure the likes of a Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, or Javier Báez next winter.
I will finish this disheartening piece by saying this: I hope I am dead wrong. Not only has DJ LeMahieu been the Yankees most consistent performer since joining the team, by some accounts he has become a de facto captain of the club. Much like Paul O’Neill was for the Yankees teams he played for, DJ is revered in the Yankees clubhouse and has had a positive influence on many of his younger Yankees teammates. After placing third in this year’s MVP voting, LeMahieu echoed a sentiment he has shared since the end of the season: he loves playing for the Yankees.