The Yankees finally made good on their “number one priority” and re-signed DJ LeMahieu on Friday, but the terms of the contract were a bit surprising. The total amount, $90 million over the length of the deal, was about what was expected, but the reported six-year term was longer than most projections. By the end of the deal, LeMahieu will be 38-years-old, possibly locking him into pinstripes for the rest of his career.
Of course, LeMahieu will not be as valuable to the Yankees in 2026 as he is in 2021, but his contract shouldn’t be an albatross by the end. LeMahieu’s unique gifts at the plate and in the field should serve him well over the course of his deal, and might age more gracefully than a player like Alex Rodriguez, Jacoby Ellsbury or Mark Teixeira, who were shells of themselves by the end of their deals.
LeMahieu, however, doesn’t have any of these pitfalls. Unlike Rodriguez, he actually has defensive value. His best trait isn’t a time-sensitive one like Ellsbury’s speed was, and he has more offensive versatility than Teixeira, whose batting average sunk until he was a home-run-or-bust player in the final years of his deal. The skills that have endeared “The Machine” to Yankees fans over the past two years should last into his 30s.
LeMahieu is, quite simply, one of the best hitters in the league. He has an extremely low whiff rate, hits the ball hard to all fields, has good plate discipline, and is cool as a cucumber in the clutch. Most of these abilities project well over time – LeMahieu doesn’t swing and miss much because he has a great batter’s eye and has a quick, compact swing. He’s not a hulking slugger with a body type conducive to injury, a wiry speed-and-defense type that will inevitably lose a step, or a power pitcher that will lose velocity as he grows older. Instead, he’s just an incredibly talented at all facets of hitting. Fortunately, talent is the most dependable and projectable trait over the course of a six-year deal.
The only thing that could seriously derail LeMahieu is an unexpected injury. Teixeira and CC Sabathia, for instance, were two durable players for most of their careers until they reached their mid-30s. Could a similar fate befall LeMahieu? There’s no way to predict it, but as long as it’s a typical age-related injury, like a muscle strain, LeMahieu should still be able to use his best traits when he returns.
LeMahieu should also provide value for the Yankees in the field over the course of his deal. Although his metrics declined a little bit from 2019 to 2020, LeMahieu remains a capable option for the Yankees at three infield positions. Who knows what the Yankees’ infield will look like in 2022, 2024, or 2026 – maybe LeMahieu starts off the deal as the Yankees’ starting second baseman, but ends it starting at first or third. At least we already know that he has the ability to play multiple positions, making a future age-related positional shift more palatable.
It’s doubtful that the Yankees truly wanted to give LeMahieu a six-year deal. Instead, it serves a payroll function – by adding two extra years, it lowers LeMahieu’s average annual value (AAV) to $15 million per year, rather than $18-$22 million. The AAV is the number factored into payroll projections, and given the team’s quest to get under the luxury tax threshold, it’s easy to see why the team would prefer a $15 million AAV rather than a $20 million AAV. At least with LeMahieu, he might still be able to be useful over those extra years.
Remember, teams don’t pay for the last two years of a deal – they pay for the first three. If LeMahieu continues to play at an MVP level through 2023 and there’s a championship ring somewhere in there, whatever he does at the end won’t even matter. Although there’s always some risk with long-term contracts, there isn’t much reason to doubt that “The Machine” will keep on producing for the Yankees into the next decade.