While researching yesterday’s article about the Yankees’ need to re-think their defensive strategies, I came across the fact that DJ LeMahieu was actually a league average defender (albeit in a small sample size) at first base. I then continued writing my article in peace and didn’t think anything else of it.
Then, while at work this morning, a scary thought hit me: what if the Yankees are seriously considering DJ LeMahieu as their everyday first baseman? I mean, think about it. With Luke Voit unable to stay on the field (and presumably still in the proverbial doghouse) and Anthony Rizzo hitting the free agent market as a 32-year-old in a modest decline, there’s a gaping hole at first base and no immediate answers within the organizational pipeline.
The evidence to support the Yankees leaning towards at least throwing LeMahieu’s name into the conversation, however, is pretty substantial. As we’ve explored in the past, this front office, for better or worse, is not shy when it comes to taking gambles on playing infielders out of their normal positions. And, as I discussed yesterday, he hasn’t exactly been bad at first base from a defensive standpoint. Might they be inclined to see what a larger sample size would look like?
The money and structure of his contract—which we all know is the be-all and end-all for Hal Steinbrenner and co.—also kind of make sense. His average salary of $15,000,000 per season over the next five years would rank him right around the current contracts of Brandon Belt (5/$72,800,000) and José Abreu (3/$50,000,000), so it certainly wouldn’t be some sort of albatross or anything from a purely comparative financial standpoint.
From a logistical perspective, it makes even more sense. It appears as though the Gleyber Torres, Yankee Shortstop experiment is mercifully over, meaning he’ll slot in as the everyday second baseman in 2022. Considering the fact that he has played in at least 123 games in each of his three full seasons and appears to be incapable of fielding other positions, that means LeMahieu’s native second base is right out of the equation.
Finally, there aren’t a lot of attractive options out there. In terms of free agents, the big fish is obviously Freddie Freeman, but all indications seem to point to a reunion with the Braves for him. That leaves Brandon Belt, who will be 34 in 2022 with a concerning history of injuries, and the aforementioned Rizzo as the next best available options. On the trade market, a guy like Matt Olson would certainly be very appealing, but the fact that he’s under team control for another two years means he’d likely cost the Yankees an arm and a leg, and there hasn’t really been any indication that the Athletics have any real interest in shopping him around.
As I said, that’s a decent amount of things working in favor of the organization at least taking a look at making LeMahieu their full-time first baseman. But the simple truth is that LeMahieu cannot be this team’s first baseman, and it is entirely because of his offensive production (or lack thereof).
Looking at the wRC+ leaderboard for qualified first basemen in 2021, LeMahieu’s 100 wRC+ would rank 23rd, just behind Eric Hosmer (102) and just ahead of someone named Pavin Smith (96). While league average certainly isn’t the worst place for a hitter to be, the only playoff team with a regular first baseman outside of the top-12 in wRC+ (adjusting for Brandon Belt, who missed time with injury but was otherwise phenomenal) was Tampa Bay, who got a 111 wRC+ from Yandy Diaz. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the case gets even bleaker when you look at ISO. LeMahieu’s isolated power was .094, ranking him dead last among twenty-six qualified first basemen.
A lot of things about the game have changed over the years, but the importance of the first baseman to the offense is one thing that has remained consistent. DJ LeMahieu’s production and tendencies are fine elsewhere on the infield, but simply do not play to the strengths of what is needed from a regular first baseman.
Now, it’s important to remember that this is all purely speculation on my part, as I haven’t seen anything that indicates the Yankees are truly considering LeMahieu as their first baseman for 2022. However, there’s no telling what this organization will do to address their multitude of needs this offseason. So, while I’m not saying that this is a legitimate or confirmed possibility by any stretch of the imagination, I am saying that I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if LeMahieu’s name gets penciled-in as the Yankees’ starting first baseman on March 31st, even though it’d be a monumentally bad decision.