At long last. The Yankees made us wait over three months, but a full quarter of a year since we saw them walk off the Petco Park field in anguish, they gave their fans something to smile about. DJ LeMahieu will be a Yankee again, and he just might close out his career in pinstripes after re-signing on a six-year, $90-million deal.
This concludes a long staredown between the Bombers and LeMahieu, a battle in which each side clearly knew they needed each other. At the end of the day, they found their level. Both parties can claim victory, returning home having accomplished what they set out to accomplish.
While some fans may raise an eyebrow at a six-year commitment for LeMahieu, who’s entering his age-32 season, the long-term structure is a clear win from the Yankees’ perspective. As much as the club claimed that signing LeMahieu was priority number-one, the team’s brass has made clear what the true priority this winter was: ducking the luxury tax.
Stretching LeMahieu’s deal deep into the next decade makes the Yankees’ quest to dip under the $210-million CBT threshold that much simpler. LeMahieu’s contract will count for just $15 million per year on the Yankees’ CBT payroll, a fairly paltry amount for a player who has performed at a superstar level for the past two seasons. That brings the Yankees’ payroll to roughly $195 million for CBT purposes, which means they’ll have every opportunity to dodge the tax and reset their taxpayer penalties.
The Yankees unquestionably preferred the six-year term to a shorter deal at the same amount. Had the team given LeMahieu his desired guarantee across four years, the $22.5 million average value would have left them with almost no flexibility to maneuver — at least under their own self-imposed constraints. If the Yankees had forced austerity upon themselves, they had little choice but to push to spread LeMahieu’s salary across as many years as possible. They can now work on using the $15 million or so they have under the tax to convince Masahiro Tanaka to return, to bring back Brett Gardner, or to augment the roster in other ways.
From LeMahieu’s perspective, he can claim the largest free-agent contract signed so far this winter. He can rest easy knowing that his financial future is completely secure, having essentially opted into an eight-year relationship with the Yankees, in exchange for $114 million overall (including his last two seasons). For a player who generated tepid interest when he first hit the free agent market at age 30, it’s hard not to feel as though LeMahieu has come away from his business with the Yankees a winner.
Perhaps most importantly for LeMahieu, staying in New York affords him the peace of mind that comes with stability. He’ll get to stay in town, when coming back to the place he’s called home for two years was his obvious preference. He’ll return to a coaching staff and roster with which he’s flourished. While questions about his ability to dominate outside the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium would have arisen had LeMahieu departed for other pastures, few will question whether he has what it takes to produce in the Bronx.
On the surface at least, this really is a win-win. With LeMahieu signed at a relatively cheap figure, the Yankees almost certainly will reset those all-important tax rates. They’ll do so having retained the most important member of the lineup at a time when doing so was critical, with their championship window perhaps as open as it’ll ever be. LeMahieu gets to keep a good thing going, staying where he’s comfortable, both on and off the field.
If we dig a little deeper, though, it is easier to find ways in which LeMahieu lost in this exchange. LeMahieu is an older free agent, but even older players tend to sign for more than $15 million annually when they run a 145 OPS+ in their two platform years. LeMahieu did beat the $68 million MLB Trade Rumors predicted for him, but it’s hard not to look at his market and find it underwhelming when compared to, say, the $92 million over four years Josh Donaldson signed for last year.
At the end of the day, expect LeMahieu’s camp to spin a win out of the fact that they got the number they wanted from the team. The Yankees got their man and satisfied their austerity obsession all at once. It was a frustrating saga, but it ultimately ended where it should have, with the Yankees retaining the core of a team that, with LeMahieu on board, looks like the best in the American League.