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Yankees 2023 Season Preview: DJ LeMahieu

DJ LeMahieu will play an important role for the 2023 Yankees, but time will tell exactly what that role is.

New York Yankees in a spring training game host the Washington Nationals Photo by J. Conrad Williams, Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images

Since first signing with the Yankees in 2019, DJ LeMahieu has been one of the most important players on the team. His defensive versatility — he has played 141 games at first base, 236 games at second base, and 149 games at third base across four seasons in pinstripes — allowed the team to keep players fresh and put out the best possible lineup when guys were injured. His ability to get on base at the top of the order has been one of the driving forces in the Yankees offense when it’s operating at or near full capacity.

For the Yankees to be successful in 2023, LeMahieu needs to continue to do both at a high level despite entering his age-34 season — all while maintaining health down the stretch more than he has the last couple years.

2022 Yankees Statistics: 125 games, 541 plate appearances, .261/.357/.377, 12 HR, 18 doubles, 46 RBI, 116 wRC+, 13.1 K%, 12.4 BB%, 8 DRS, 8 OAA, 3.0 fWAR, 3.7 bWAR

2023 ZiPS Projections: 128 games, 569 plate appearances, .273/.348/.391, 12 HR, 22 doubles, 60 RBI, 115 wRC+, 13.5 K%, 10.0 BB%, 4.1 fWAR

Looking purely at the numbers, LeMahieu’s ZiPS line seems right on the money. However, when we dive into his 2022 campaign, things start to become less clear. From Opening Day to August 11th, he slashed .283/.387/.425 with 12 homers, good for a 139 wRC+ (22nd among hitters with at least 350 plate appearances in that span) and 3.6 fWAR (19th). From August 12th until the end of the season, however, that dropped to a .163/.215/.163 line with no extra-base hits in 23 games; over this time, his 9 wRC+ ranked 299th among the 302 hitters with at least 90 plate appearances, and his -0.7 fWAR put him tied for 294th.

As it turns out, a toe fracture that almost required offseason surgery was the primary reason for that dropoff, and when we consider the fact that his lackluster 2021 (.268/.349/.362 slash, 100 wRC+) was likely the result of a balky hip that ended his season prematurely and a core injury that required offseason surgery. Over the past few years, LeMahieu has established himself as a consistent 130-140 wRC+ hitter when healthy, which makes that above projection a bit bearish. He probably won’t be the 2019-20 MVP candidate ever again, but he can absolutely still be a dangerous bat.

That being said, however, the true question about LeMahieu isn’t his performance on the diamond, but rather, his ability to stay on it. He is coming off back-to-back seasons that ended earlier than expected due to injuries and is headed into his age-34 season. Players generally spend more time dealing with injuries as they older, not less, and while LeMahieu seems cognizant of the changes he needs to make to ensure that he stays on the field, it’s fair to wonder if the Yankees need to eventually start looking for other options atop the lineup.

LeMahieu’s specific role on this team is also up in the air, although this has less to do with him and more to do with the health and performance of those around him. If the entire infield stays healthy — the way the spring has gone, that’s a big if — he will continue the superutility role that earned him a Gold Glove for last season, spelling Anthony Rizzo and Josh Donaldson at the corners and Gleyber Torres at the keystone several times per week. Injuries, however, will almost certainly push him to a position full-time, at least temporarily, as happened in 2019 (Didi Gregorius and Troy Tulowitzki in the spring, Giancarlo Stanton in October), 2021 (Luke Voit for much of the first half), and 2022 (Josh Donaldson in the spring, Anthony Rizzo in August). On top of that, with Oswaldo Cabrera capable of filling the superutility role and the team clearly frustrated with Donaldson — it was widely reported this winter that the team looked to trade him — it’s easy to see the team pulling the plug on the 2015 MVP if he gets off to a slow start and handing third over to LeMahieu full-time.

All of this combines to say that, sitting here on March 14th, there are a million different paths that DJ LeMahieu’s season can take. Hopefully, the path chosen will be one in which he stays healthy while continuing to fill a number of roles for the team, because that’s the one most likely to see the Yankees find success.