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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Marcus Semien

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Marcus Semien might rank lower than Corey Seager and Carlos Correa, but he is an intriguing option the Yankees should seriously consider.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

In the last three years, there is exactly one player with two top-three finishes in MVP voting: Marcus Semien. In that same time span, he has slashed .268/.346/.509 with 85 home runs and 29 stolen bases. He’s also been worth 15.4 fWAR since the start of the 2019 season, which is, naturally, the most in the majors during that time, and has posted a very healthy 128 wRC+. Out of a possible 384 games, Semien has played in all but seven of them.

On the defensive side of the ball, Semien’s metrics get a bit cloudy. On one hand, he has posted a respectable DRS of 2 at shortstop since 2019 (and it should be noted that he posted a DRS of 11 at second base this past season). On the other hand, however, Baseball Savant has his OAA at -14 as a shortstop over the same time frame. Semien’s camp has made it known that he’d like to return to shortstop, but are the defensive metrics good enough for a team to let him hang around there? Or is he better suited sticking at second base, where he’s had more success?

In terms of Statcast data, a few things about Semien’s performance in 2021 stick out:

Baseball Savant

While this might not be the type of chart you’d expect to see given his recent success, it is worth noting that he’s considered great-to-elite when it comes to chase rate, sprint speed, and outs above average (though, as discussed, this is his ranking as a second baseman). Let’s tackle sprint speed first.

Semien posted a sprint speed of 28.6 ft/s in 2021. For the sake of comparison, the only Yankees that ranked better were Tyler Wade (29.1), Tim Locastro (30.7), Estevan Florial (28.9), and Andrew Velazquez (29.3). In fact, Semien’s mark was identical to Brett Gardner’s. Given that Wade, Locastro, and Velazquez are on other teams, Florial is (for now) still in the minors, and Gardner is (also for now) a free agent, Semien would immediately slot in as the fastest player on a team in desperate need for a bit of speed.

Now for chase rate — Semien’s was 21.2 percent in 2021. Comparing him to the Yankees once again, the only current Yankee regulars with better marks were Joey Gallo and DJ LeMahieu, both of whom are known for not expanding the zone. Working in conjunction with his fairly aggressive zone swing percentage (69.7 percent), Semien’s recent success is tied to his approach at the plate that sees him hunting strikes and having a good enough eye to lay off pitches out of the zone.

Extrapolating this approach to his strikeout and walk percentages, Semien starts to look even better. Despite an aggressive approach on pitches in the zone, Semien’s strikeout rate sat at just 20.2 percent. In 2021, the only regular Yankees with a lower rate were LeMahieu (13.8 percent) and Anthony Rizzo (14 percent). The only downside to Semien’s approach at the plate is that he doesn’t walk all that much. In 2021, his walk rate was just 9.1 percent. In my eyes, though, that is more than offset by his ability to make consistent contact on pitches in the zone (85.6 percent).

Given everything I’ve outlined above, why aren’t people including Semien’s name among the likes of Carlos Correa and Corey Seager in the upper echelon of free agent shortstops? Well, for starters, his age is a bit of a hang up. Unfortunately for Semien’s bank account, it took him a little longer to really put it all together at the plate, so he’s entering this offseason at the age of 31, which might cause people to think twice about giving him the lengthy contract he’s likely looking for after betting on himself last offseason.

Additionally, there’s the question of position. Is Semien a shortstop or a second baseman? The defensive metrics suggest he’s better off as a second baseman, but his current offensive metrics suggest that you can probably mask his defense at shortstop for the time being. As he gets older though, do you really want to pay a premium for a shortstop and bank on his bat remaining elite for at least a couple more years when it’s common knowledge that second basemen typically command less in overall dollar amount than shortstops (our old buddy Robinson Canó notwithstanding)?

Finally, there’s the issue of track record. As I mentioned earlier, Semien has been one of the very best players over the last three years. The problem with that is he made his debut in 2013. In just over seven full seasons, Semien has finished top-three in MVP voting twice. In the other five-plus seasons, he’s posted a wRC+ of 79, 91, 97, 98, 97, 97, and 91, and has been worth just 11.1 fWAR combined. In other words, when Semien is good, he is an MVP candidate. When he’s not at that level, though, he’s a slightly below league average hitter. That’s a fairly steep difference between floor and ceiling, and actually sounds a little bit like another infielder tied to the Yankees until 2027. This track record begs the question, which Semien are you getting when you sign him to what will likely be a five-year contract?

Semien’s free agent case is one of the most perplexing I can remember in recent memory. It’s not every day that a top-three MVP finisher hits the free agent market, but it’s also not every day that a top-three MVP finisher has such stark splits across his career. Given his recent success, though, Semien would likely be an upgrade for the Yankees in 2022, and his positional flexibility would also allow him to serve as a stopgap for a few years until Anthony Volpe or Oswald Peraza are ready. While I would prefer to see the Yankees invest in Seager or Correa, I certainly would not be disappointed to see Semien in pinstripes next season.

Update

Well, it seems like Semien will be heading out west to Texas.