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DJ LeMahieu’s Yankee future may depend on Gleyber’s ability to play short

If Gleyber Torres’ small-sample defensive struggles persist, the Yankees may shift him back to second next year, which clouds a potential return for “The Machine.”

Divisional Series - New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In his season-plus in the Bronx, DJ LeMahieu has established himself as a fan favorite with his consistency and penchant for big hits. But the man dubbed “The Machine” by his teammates is a free agent at the end of this surreal season and his future with the club may well hinge on another Yankee star who’s aiming to build his own legend in pinstripes.

Gleyber Torres, for all his precocious talent, is a work in progress at shortstop. During the Yanks’ pre-pandemic spring training, Torres made five errors in 10 games. Heading into Thursday night’s matchup in Baltimore, he’d been credited with two errors in four regular season games.

Some important caveats: these are incredibly small samples and come after long layoffs (the offseason and the pandemic pause, respectively). A combination of rust and bad luck may well be the best explanation for his defensive struggles.

But they do raise an important question: if the Yankees decide Torres is better suited playing second, the position where he’s spent the bulk of his major league innings, does that essentially box out LeMahieu from a return to the Bronx?

Of course, it’s no certainty that LeMahieu re-signs anyway. The two-year, $24 million contract he inked prior to the 2019 season has proven to be a remarkable bargain for the Yankees and he’d surely be looking for a longer term deal at a higher average annual value this coming offseason. But it’s an open question whether teams will want to spend big bucks on a player entering his age-33 season after a shortened campaign played in empty stadiums. Maybe a similar short-term deal (say, two years, $30 million) will be palatable to both LeMahieu and the Yanks.

The question at that point becomes roster fit. When they originally inked LeMahieu, the Yankees envisioned him being a super utility player who could fill in as needed all over the infield. And he certainly did that last year, playing 75 games at second, 52 at third and 40 at first while becoming an offensive stalwart at the top of the lineup. But there’s arguably less need for that type of flexibility on this roster, with Gio Urshela (and, theoretically, Miguel Andujar) manning third and Luke Voit and Mike Ford at first. LeMahieu’s chief value to the 2020 team (and presumably going forward, should he re-sign) comes at second base, where he remains comfortably above average defensively.

If Torres can lock down shortstop, the fit for LeMahieu is clear. But if Torres’ small-sample miscues become a more problematic pattern, maybe the Yankees decide their free agent budget would be better spent on a more dependable shortstop.

There will be a few intriguing free agent options at the position, including Marcus Semien (coming off an MVP-caliber 2019 season, though his glove isn’t particularly great), defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons, and old friend Didi Gregorius. Or the Yanks could find a one-year stopgap and take aim at the enticing 2022 free agent class, including Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, and Corey Seager.

A lot will come down to how Torres adjusts. In 77 games at shortstop last season, he was worth -2 outs above average (as measured by Statcast), which ranked 22nd out of 35 qualified players. If he can stay in that same range – below average, but not atrociously so – it’s plausible the Yankees would live with that, at least for a few years. (Ironically, he was worth -5 OAA in 12 fewer games at second base.) But if his early season struggles become the norm, the Yankees may have to reassess their approach to the position, which could mean unplugging “The Machine.”