Since the World Series ended and the offseason began a few weeks back, it feels like the entire baseball world has been waiting on two middle infielders to set the market: Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor and free agent second baseman DJ LeMahieu. While a few relatively low-profile pitchers have signed early in free agency, it seems that, for position players at least, these two All-Stars will set the trade and free agent markets, respectively.
Not surprisingly, the Yankees have been linked to both players. Early in November, Cleveland announced that they would be moving the four-time All-Star; soon after, the Yankees were identified by Jon Morosi of MLB.com as one of the leading candidates to land Lindor. More recently, Jim Bowden tweeted that the Yankees “have made it clear that bringing back 2B DJ LeMahieu is their top priority” and noted that LeMahieu’s preference is to remain in New York. While it’s possible that neither player will be in the Bronx next season, it’s more likely than not that one of the two will be batting leadoff for the Yankees in April.
Based on the Yankees’ roster construction and (self-imposed) salary limitations, however, only one will end up in pinstripes next season; once the other is acquired, the team will almost certainly cease their attempts to acquire the other. With this in mind, let’s break down both players as long-term investments, to better see which player makes more sense for Brian Cashman and the Yankees.
Below are the last three seasons’ worth of offensive performance for both players, as well as the ZiPS projections for the next two years, as found on their FanGraphs pages; figures are bolded to indicate which of the two is higher between the two.
Lindor and LeMahieu Offensive Performance/Projections
Attempting to draw any conclusions from this comparison proves remarkably difficult. Over the past three seasons, LeMahieu has had the better performances and has been trending in the right direction, while Lindor has seen a decline since 2018. However, LeMahieu will turn 33 next July, and Lindor turned only 27 last week; for that reason the ZiPS projections understandably project a decline from the former and increased production from the latter.
On the other side of the coin, LeMahieu’s Statcast data the past two seasons have not only exceeded Lindor’s in the same timespan, but are better even than Lindor’s breakout 2018.
LeMahieu/Lindor Statcast comparison
|Season||Player||Exit Velocity||Barrel %||Hard Hit %||K%||B%|
|Season||Player||Exit Velocity||Barrel %||Hard Hit %||K%||B%|
These combined numbers make it difficult to definitely state that one will be more valuable than the other next season. Barring stadium-based data that could project whether or not Lindor will see a performance boost at Yankee Stadium akin to LeMahieu’s, I’m going to have to give this one to LeMahieu.
Both infielders have been elite defenders at important defensive positions throughout their careers — Lindor has two Gold Gloves at short to his name (2016 and 2019), and LeMahieu has three at the keystone (2014, 2017, 2018). Recent history, however, offers a clear advantage to Lindor: last season, he was worth 5 OAA (second among shortstops, behind only Fernando Tatís Jr.), while LeMahieu’s -1 OAA was tied for 32nd among second basemen.
Even looking back to the previous full season (acknowledging that defensive metrics do take some time to stabilize), Lindor has a lead in OAA (11 to 4) and Defensive Runs Saved (11 to 3). Only in UZR/150 does LeMahieu have a lead, 13.2 to 7.4; however, that number represents an aberration in Lindor’s career, which had been 13.4 in 2018 and 11.7 this past season.
The only thing that LeMahieu has in his favor defensively is that he has demonstrated great positional flexibility, playing 286 innings at first base and 487 at third over the past two seasons. While I’m sure that Lindor could provide similar flexibility, he has not, and in truth, his defense at short is so superior to the team’s other options that they probably would not move him around. Furthermore, the addition of Lindor would move Gleyber Torres back to second base. Although he has not been particularly great at either position, second base is a less valuable defensive position, and if needed, he could be more easily removed late in games for a defensive replacement.
Already, Lindor appears to be a stronger defender; add on the fact that infield defense declines with age, and it’s a no-brainer. The Yankees’ defense would be better with Lindor at shortstop than LeMahieu at second.
In a normal year, determining how much LeMahieu would earn in free agency would be a quest in futility; ditto for Cleveland’s potential return for Lindor on the trade market. This is notably not a normal season. Not only have the last few winters been relatively slow (with the exception of the top of the market last winter), but the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many teams to cry poverty and let slip the dogs of extreme frugality. Even so, attempt we shall.
Starting with LeMahieu, MLB Trade Rumors projects that he will receive a four-year deal worth $68 million (a $17 million AAV), which seems a little low. They do note that, in a normal year, they would project him to receive something similar to the four-year, $92 million deal ($23 million AAV) that Josh Donaldson received from Minnesota last January. LeMahieu, however, is two years younger than Donaldson was last winter, is reaching free agency after a stronger season, and provides greater positional flexibility. Perhaps, then, that four-year, $92 million benchmark might actually reflect a sensible projection.
Furthermore, recent rumors suggest something similar. LeMahieu is reportedly looking for a five-year deal, while the Yankees have a three-year offer on the table, and are open to a fourth.
Michael Kay just said he's been told DJ LeMahieu's agent is pushing for a five year deal, and he believes the Yankees will go three years, maybe four if that means getting it done. Sounds similar to what I've heard in terms of how far the Yankees may go— Dan Federico (@DanJFederico) November 18, 2020
The Francisco Lindor return, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. MLB.com sets a potential return of Clint Frazier, Miguel Andújar, Luis Gil, and Albert Abreu. This seems a bit steep, as Frazier projects to be the Yankees’ starting left fielder, and Betts — an objectively better player than Lindor — did not net nearly this much. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the offer proposed by Jim Bowden of The Athletic: Andújar, Oswald Peraza, and Miguel Yajure; this one seems a little steep, as Cleveland says they are looking for multiple MLB-ready pieces.
Even drawing comparisons to the Betts trade is difficult, as in essence, the price for Betts was David Price’s contract, and the prospects were sent in exchange for Price. Unfortunately, Cleveland does not have a single player who is comparatively overpaid in the same way that David Price is, as the team’s two highest non-Lindor salaries, José Ramírez and Carlos Carrasco, are veritable bargains given how much they produce.
Complicating the issue is the matter of his extension. Manny Machado and his 10-year, $300 million contract probably represents the benchmark for an extension; they were both roughly the same age at the time they reached free agency, and Machado’s superior bat is offset by Lindor’s superior glove at a higher-profile position. Additionally, there’s the opportunity cost of whether or not Lindor even wants to sign an extension, or if he wants to hit the open market.
Assuming that the Yankees are able to get LeMahieu on a four-year deal, he represents the more efficient option; however, if the bidding increases to five years, Lindor begins to potentially look like the better long-term value — particularly if he’s willing to negotiate an extension.
Both middle infielders have a lot of reasons for the Yankees to want to see them in pinstripes. LeMahieu’s bat has been superior the last two years and profiles well at Yankee Stadium; in addition to providing a better glove, Lindor will almost certainly have a longer peak. It pretty much comes down to personal preference whether you feel that LeMahieu or Lindor represents a more appealing target for the Yankees. And so, I leave it to you guys: who do you think would be a better fit?
Which middle infielder should the Yankees make a priority this winter?
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