The New York Yankees and DJ LeMahieu are not particularly close to a reunion. There is a considerable difference in the two parties’ aspirations, including both the number of years and the dollars in a hypothetical commitment. And while Yankees’ general manager Brian Cashman has repeatedly said that re-signing LeMahieu is this offseason’s priority, the team should be prepared for a scenario in which they can’t land their man.
The talented infielder was the Yankees’ leader in fWAR the last two seasons, and if he doesn’t come back to New York, the team will feel it in almost every facet of the game. There aren’t any natural replacements for his combination of hitting prowess and defensive versatility on the team’s roster, nor on the free agent market.
However, one lower-profile name the Bombers should monitor if they fail to bring back their MVP is fellow free agent second-sacker Kolten Wong.
Offensively, Wong is a speed and contact guy primarily, but he has shown enough power in his eight-year tenure in the bigs to be a near-average hitter overall (96 career wRC+, 92 in 2020, and 108 in 2019.) At 30, he is who he is and probably doesn’t have much upside with the bat.
Fielding is his best tool
Yet the fact that Wong is a superb defensive second baseman makes him a pretty good player. In 2020, he finished with one Out Above Average (OAA), enough to rank in the 82nd percentile in that category. In 2019, he accumulated an excellent eight OAA.
He hasn’t had a negative Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) or UZR/150 since 2017, and has 41 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) since the start of the 2018 campaign. The guy can field with the best of them, is what the advanced metrics are saying.
These accomplishments resulted in Wong winning two straight Golden Gloves at second base in 2019 and 2020. He is also the proud winner of three Fielding Bible Awards, in straight seasons from 2018 to 2020.
If we are making a direct comparison between the two, LeMahieu is a vastly superior hitter, but Wong is a significantly better defender and a tad younger. Wong’s best season so far was 2019. That year, he accumulated a career-high 3.7 fWAR and 108 wRC+, with a .285/.361/.423 line, 11 home runs, 61 runs, 59 RBI, and 24 steals. As his 15.1 percent strikeout rate indicates, he doesn’t whiff too often.
That 2019 performance should be considered Wong’s ceiling, but even his floor is somewhat manageable: in seven full seasons, his wRC+ has ranged between 85 and 108. He’s fairly consistent.
Seeing how talented he is at fielding his position and how he can deliver average offense, teams are interested in Wong. The Cardinals turned down his $12.5 million option for 2021, but that doesn’t mean they won’t consider bringing him back at a lower salary. The Toronto Blue Jays and the Los Angeles Angels also want him, per reports.
Kolten Wong is no DJ LeMahieu, but in the case the latter decides to walk (or the Yankees choose not to go five years or meet his financial demands) it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have an average hitter with an elite glove taking over in the middle infield.