Whether or not the Yankees need to add a starting-caliber shortstop to their roster hinges on their free agency negotiations with DJ LeMahieu. If LeMahieu re-ups with the Yanks, the team should look a lot like its 2020 predecessor, for better or for worse. As noted in Peter Brody’s examination of why the Yankees might be better off letting DJ walk beyond a certain price if Hal Steinbrenner is enforcing his payroll limitations, one of the concerns regarding DJ’s retention is that it forces Gleyber Torres to continue on as the club’s primary shortstop.
While he’s proven capable of producing like one of the game’s most promising prospects, Torres has been one of the game’s worst defensive shortstops since the advent of player tracking. While GM Brian Cashman claimed he still has faith in Torres’s potential as a passably defending shortstop, he admitted that Torres was likely less of a liability at the keystone. Torres will need to drastically improve on defense in order to reach his full potential as a player, whereas he has a much lower bar to clear to become solid at second. Whichever side of second base the Yankees believe Torres is best suited for should inform this off-season’s dealings, as well as next.
If the Yankees manage to figure out a deal to re-sign LeMahieu, they’ll be stuck with Torres at short for 2021 and the foreseeable future, unless they are able to trade him in advance of going after one of the superstars on the market following that season.
Assume that DJ walks, and that the Yankees will have the opportunity to ideally sign a second baseman or shortstop for the 2021 season, reset the luxury tax, and be in play to splurge on a superstar-6 come the 2021-22 offseason. While we’ve already explored some of the free agent offerings on the left side of the infield, the Yankees could also choose to keep Gleyber at short, and simply replace DJ with another second baseman.
Among the best available options there is infielder César Hernández. Although effectively replacing the one of the best second basemen in the game on both sides of the ball is practically impossible, Hernández gets almost half of the job done. In the Statcast era, LeMahieu has created more defensive outs above average than any other second baseman, but he’s coming off the worst defensive season of his career, and will only continue to regress as he ages into his mid-thirties.
Even though DJ probably won’t be as bad as 2020’s small sample size pegged him (20th percentile), moving forwards, it’s safe to assume that his Gold Glove-winning defensive seasons are a relic of a bygone era. Hernández, still 30, graded out as MLB’s fourth-best defensive second baseman in 2020, and the 18th-best since MLB started tracking OAA. After years of superb defense with the Phillies, he ended up winning his first career Gold Glove in 2020 with Cleveland:
With lightning-quick feet and an accurate arm, Hernández is a beast towards first. He’s gobbled up grounders and delivered consistent strikes to his first baseman as well as anybody but LeMahieu. Up the middle, however, his arm strength costs him outs, as he’s unable to fire firm enough darts to beat runners when pulled away from the bag.
Offensively, Hernández is no basher, but he’s a tough enough out who can hold his own at the plate. However, he has a mere 49 career homers across eight seasons, and though he struck a career-high (albeit league-average) average exit velocity in the micro-sized 2020, he has finished around the bottom of the league in several past seasons.
Hernández doesn’t strike out or walk a ton, but he’s made a career out of finding hittable pitches up in the zone and slapping them around the outfield. His balanced career spray chart makes him virtually un-shiftable, as he’s equally likely to lace a liner down either line.
That being said, Hernández’s career .277 batting average, plus league-average strikeout and walk rates with a career .383 slugging percentage, has led to nearly exactly league-average production — a 98 OPS+.
Since Hernández’s weak arm prohibits him from feasibly playing on the left side of the infield, signing César would confirm Gleyber’s reprisal of his defensive duties from last year. At second though, his solid glove and average bat make him an attractive and cheaper alternative to DJ that could help the Yankees reset the luxury tax and plug their hole in the infield until 2022, when they can reevaluate their future with Gleyber all over again.