One of the most rewarding aspects about writing for Pinstripe Alley is the latitude we are afforded to attack the same topic from different angles, and through different lenses. Earlier this week, my colleague Tom detailed a thoughtful and well-articulated argument for why the Yankees should not let $25 million deter them from re-signing DJ LeMahieu. I’d like to take this opportunity to propose a rebuttal — a dissenting opinion of sorts — and explore why going beyond a certain monetary/contract term commitment would not be in the Yankees’ best interest.
I must state upfront that everything that follows is operating under the premise that the franchise is not budging on its apparent self-imposed payroll limitations and that Brian Cashman has to maneuver in that space. It’s not ideal, but it’s likely more realistic than the Steinbrenners deciding to go on another splurge reminiscent of the 2008-09 or 2013-14 offseasons. Under the aforementioned restrictions, the Yankees have approximately $35 million to spend before hitting the first CBT threshold of $210 million according to Baseball Prospectus.
It is no secret that in recent years, Cashman has stayed disciplined in his player valuations. This could have been born out of the monumental disaster of Jacoby Ellsbury’s contract, and the desire to never again pay over $50 million for someone to twiddle their thumbs for two years or more. And while I’m not saying LeMahieu will turn into an Ellsbury-sized, payroll-gobbling black hole, it stands to reason that with Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton already covering significant payroll space for the next near-decade, the Yankees might be hesitant to offer a contract that takes a position player into his late-thirties.
So how does this apply to LeMahieu? The Yankees are certainly interested in bringing back their star second baseman. Heck, he is their number one priority of the offseason, the piece of business holding up all other negotiations. However, it appears that the front office’s valuation of LeMahieu is more than $25 million short of the reported five year, $100 million contract he seeks. Thus the same rigid stance that saw Cashman pass on Patrick Corbin and Manny Machado or refuse to trade for Cole and Lance Lynn — despite the clear needs on the team — could come into play in their dialogue with LeMahieu.
So if the disparity in the two camps’ prices is so vast, would it not be more wise to invest that money in other areas of need? As valuable as LeMahieu has been in pinstripes, there are glaring holes in the roster that more immediately threaten the the Yankees’ chances at a successful playoff run. Namely: the starting rotation.
As of the writing of this piece, the Yankees’ front five looks to have only two sure-things in Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery. For the remaining three spots, Cashman listed Domingo Germán, Luis Severino, Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, Michael King, Nick Nelson, Miguel Yajure and Jonathan Loáisiga as potential candidates.
Germán has not pitched in the majors since 2019 and is getting lit up in LIDOM. Severino is unlikely to be available until after the All-Star break, and will have “safeties” on. García has never thrown more than 111 1⁄3 innings in a season, and Schmidt has a grand total of 120 1⁄3 in his professional career. King owns a career 7.22 ERA and cannot make it through the lineup more than once. Nelson, Yajure, and Loáisiga are relievers.
So after all that, we’re back where we began: still with only two starting pitchers in the rotation. No amount of LeMahieu heroics in 2021 could rescue the team from the disaster of the starting rotation as it currently stands. With the money that they could give LeMahieu, the Yankees could conceivably sign not one, but two starters who at the very least will eat enough innings to get the team through a full season.
The other concern that arguably merits greater attention is the infield defense, or more specifically, Gleyber Torres’ defense. There’s no sugarcoating it: Torres is one of the worst fielding shortstops in MLB in the Statcast era, ranking 164th out of 172 players. Cashman himself admitted that he saw Torres as more of a second baseman than shortstop. And so it appears that a likely route could either see Torres slide back to the keystone while the Yankees enter the shortstop market, or keep Torres at short temporarily in 2021 and pursue a cheap second baseman while waiting for the next offseason. Both options would squeeze LeMahieu out of the picture.
This avenue also aligns with the objective of resetting the tax penalty, as they would then be at more liberty to splurge on the shortstop-apalooza of the 2021-22 offseason. That could mean signing any one of say, Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Marcus Semien, Tommy La Stella, Kolten Wong, or César Hernández as a one-year stopgap to get them to that absurd class —a class, may I remind you, that includes Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, and Javier Báez. I’d argue that investing $5-10 million more in AAV toward one of the studs of that shortstop class is a more responsible move, as you would be getting between four and six extra years of prime production relative to re-signing LeMahieu.
By no means do I wish to trivialize the importance that LeMahieu has had to the Yankees over the past two seasons. However, just because he turned in such stellar results does not guarantee that he will continue to perform at that level as he enters his mid-thirties. Indeed, three separate projection systems are equally conservative in their estimates of LeMahieu’s future production.
Depth Charts, Steamer, and ZiPS return essentially identical predictions for LeMahieu in 2021, projecting a batting average in the .290’s, a home run total in the high-teens, and a wRC+ around 110, all good for a roughly three-and-a-half win player. ZiPS sees a considerable fall-off in 2022, as it predicts that he will barely crack a two-and-a-half win player. Assuming a similar rate of decline in the following years of his contract, that is not the type of production you want to be paying north of $20 million.
At the very least, the Yankees should continue to be measured in their negotiations with LeMahieu. It would be foolish to get hasty and offer him top dollar without at least a cursory understanding of the market for him around the rest of the league. The one thing the Yankees want to avoid is bidding against themselves (as they seemed to do with Ellsbury), artificially driving up LeMahieu’s price. So let him shop around and listen to offers from other suitors.
Let’s not overinflate other teams’ persistence in acquiring his services, either. Obviously, many teams are reportedly interested. But as my colleague Joshua Diemert thoroughly pointed out: LeMahieu offers more value to the Yankees than to any other potential suitor. His offensive production has been maximized by the dimensions of Yankee Stadium, and would likely diminish in any other ballpark.
Josh predicted that LeMahieu gained between four and six home runs due to the short right field porch relative to a neutral ballpark. Those dingers plus the extra-base hits that may have been held to singles or converted to outs result in a potential loss of 30-40 points from OPS+ and wRC+. Suddenly, you are looking at a four-WAR ceiling player who would struggle to repay the value of a nine-figure contract.
Who knows? Maybe the market fails to develop, and the Yankees can reunite with LeMahieu at a more reasonable price, perhaps meeting each other in the middle. After all, it has been reported that the Mets may not be serious players for LeMahieu, while the Nationals’ lack of interest in Kris Bryant may signal a reluctance to add significant payroll. The worst-case scenario is that another club is willing to meet his five year and/or $100 million self-valuation, at which point the Yankees will need to decide if that is a commitment they are willing to match.
On a personal level, I would much prefer that the Yankees keep LeMahieu in pinstripes. Occam’s razor tells us that the simplest solution is usually the correct one. He has shown that he can swing it under the New York lights. He does not rely on home runs to still be a productive hitter. He can play multiple defensive positions with aplomb and is beloved by both his teammates and Yankees fans alike.
I also firmly disagree with any attempt to enter the season with a sub-$210 million payroll. The Yankees have a rapidly shrinking World Series window with the current core of players, and the safest way to increase their championship odds is retaining their best players. But there is a big difference between how I believe things should work and how they will actually play out. I may not like trying to reset the tax, but if the Yankees are determined to do so, their limited pool of resources needs to be allotted to the most pressing areas of need. And DJ LeMahieu might just find himself the odd man out.