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The Yankees are taking a risk in signing DJ LeMahieu as a utilityman

The Yankees envision LeMahieu as their version of Ben Zobrist or Marwin Gonzalez, but will that become reality?

MLB: NLDS-Milwaukee Brewers at Colorado Rockies Russell Lansford-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees surprised many when reports emerged that they had agreed to a contract with DJ LeMahieu. The team’s purported pursuit of Manny Machado, of course, came into question. Whether the Yankees are still pursuing Machado or not, they brought in LeMahieu to be a significant piece of the infield going forward.

The Yankees have key players locked in as starters for their infield currently, with high expectations for sophomore seasons from Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar. They also have Luke Voit and Greg Bird to battle out over first base, Didi Gregorius to play shortstop once he recovers from injury, and Troy Tulowitzki to man short in his stead. That leaves little room in theory for LeMahieu, but the Yankees want him to play a role that some recent World Series champions have deployed.

LeMahieu will apparently play a super-utility role in 2019, meaning he will cycle through each various positions and give the main starter a day or two off before moving to another spot and letting that starter rest. The best examples of players thriving in this role come from Ben Zobrist and Marwin Gonzalez, who won titles with the Cubs and Astros respectively. While a super utilityman is an interesting addition to the team, and while LeMahieu could conceivably succeed in such a role, he doesn’t fit quite so perfectly in the model the Yankees want to follow.

For starters, let’s look at the offensive side of things. In 533 at-bats, LeMahieu slashed .276/.321/.428 with 15 homers, 62 RBI, and 90 runs scored for the Rockies last season. His 88 OPS+, however, was slightly below his career average. Zobrist swung the bat the best of the trio last year, slashing .305/.378/.440 with a 115 OPS+, and Gonzalez had a modest offensive season with a .247/.324/.409 slash line and a 103 OPS+.

In a vacuum, LeMahieu looks to be behind Zobrist but close with Gonzalez in terms of offensive production, but there are a couple of more things to consider here, notably how LeMahieu and Gonzalez are trending career-wise. LeMahieu had his most successful season in 2016, posting a 128 OPS+, but hasn’t been able to get over 100 in any other season of his career. Gonzalez is also coming down from a breakout year, his coming in 2017 where he posted a 146 OPS+, but despite regression still put up his fourth 100 OPS+ season in the last five years.

By those measures, it’s fair to say that LeMahieu has been behind Gonzalez, though admittedly not far behind, in terms of his floor and ceiling offensively. His numbers still suggest that he could produce at a valuable rate, depending on how much of a factor playing at Coors Field has benefited him.

Next we must consider defense, and this is where the comparison begins to look rough. Zobrist and Gonzalez have played multiple positions consistently for years, and have done so successfully. Gonzalez has been a jack-of-all-trades, playing every infield position as well as some outfield, while Zobrist spends most of his time flitting between second base and the outfield. LeMahieu, on the other hand, has been exclusively a second baseman for the last four years. He does have 41 career major league games at third base, plus a handful at first and short, but that’s nowhere near the level of experience that the other two have at manning multiple places.

This is the crucial piece of the puzzle to becoming a super utility player, because while a competent bat is valuable, the utilityman has to be able to field across the board at an above-average level. LeMahieu definitely has enough skill to do so at second, and while it’s not inconceivable that he could do so at the other positions, there’s definitely a level of risk in signing him and assuming hthat e can.

This also brings in to question why, if acquiring a utilityman was a priority, the Yankees decided they wanted LeMahieu when one of the premier utilitymen is also a free agent. Gonzalez would have been a safer option for the Yankees to go after, though he is also coveted by more teams. Perhaps signing LeMahieu represented the Yankees playing the market and targeting a player with less demand rather than paying full price for Gonzalez. Either way, a player in the Zobrist/Gonzalez mold is the target for LeMahieu, and it’ll be a gamble to see if he can make good.