DJ LeMahieu Is Back in the Bronx

The staredown is over, and the first of this winter’s top-tier free agents has signed. Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the Yankees are finalizing a six-year, $90 million deal to bring back DJ LeMahieu, who over the past two seasons has been one of the game’s top hitters and most valuable players.

That outcome — a surprise given his latter-day performances with the Rockies — has a whole lot to do with the way the now-32-year-old infielder adapted to the Bronx, to such an extent that “The Machine” likely has more value to the Yankees than to any other team. Even so, this is a comparatively reasonable deal that fits the Yankees well, as its lower average annual value will aid the team when it comes to the Competitive Balance Tax. At the same time, from a dollars-and-wins standpoint, it may not bode tremendously well for this winter’s other top free agents.

When the Yankees signed LeMahieu to a two-year, $24 million deal, he was coming off a tepid 91 wRC+ over the final two seasons of his seven-year run in Colorado. Even so, his glovework had boosted his value to 4.1 WAR in that span, giving him a reasonable floor, and our own Jeff Sullivan saw his high contact rate, right-handedness, ability to hit to the opposite field, and modest pop as reminiscent of one Derek Jeter. Due to a slew of injuries, the Yankees leaned upon LeMahieu more than most observers expected, and between his defensive versatility and indeed, his ability to go oppo with his fly balls — thereby taking advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch — he emerged as one of the toughest outs in the league.

LeMahieu, who had reached double digits in home runs just twice with the Rockies and topped out at 15 in 2018, hit a major league-high 16 opposite field homers at home in 2019-20 (out of 36 total) while continuing to pull enough groundballs hard enough to put up eye-opening numbers. After batting .327/.375/.518 (136 wRC+) with 5.4 WAR in 2019, he hit a sizzling .364/.421/.590 in ’20. His batting average in the latter season made him the first modern player to win batting titles in both leagues; Ed Delahanty won the NL in 1899, and the AL in 1902, his last full season before going over Niagara Falls.

Anyway, LeMahieu also led the AL in on-base percentage and wRC+ (177) as well while ranking fifth in WAR (2.5) and sixth in slugging percentage in 2020. Over his two years with the Yankees, he hit .366/.421/.642 (183 wRC+) at home compared to .309/.354/.439 (112 wRC+), so while it’s fair to call his performance something of a creation of Yankee Stadium, the good news for both sides in this deal is that he’ll be calling The House That George Built home for the next half-dozen seasons.

Via Dan Szymborski, here’s his ZiPS projection for those six years:

ZiPS Projection – DJ LeMahieu
2021 .305 .355 .456 557 93 170 27 3 17 73 43 80 6 117 7 4.2
2022 .300 .350 .448 516 83 155 25 3 15 66 39 72 6 113 6 3.5
2023 .297 .345 .440 489 77 145 22 3 14 61 35 65 5 110 4 3.0
2024 .291 .337 .424 460 69 134 19 3 12 55 31 59 4 104 3 2.3
2025 .285 .329 .404 428 61 122 17 2 10 48 27 51 4 97 2 1.6
2026 .278 .317 .382 395 53 110 13 2 8 41 22 43 3 88 0 0.9

That may be a conservative projection on the front end, in that LeMahieu has slugged .536 with the Yankees thus far while averaging 6.0 WAR per 150 games, but even if he can’t match that, this looks like a bargain for the team. Even without adjusting for inflation, that’s only $5.8 million per win above replacement. Of course, baseball salaries have been deflating in recent years, and on the heels of a shortened season with virtually no gate revenue in 2020 and only limited revenue on that front in ’21, our built-in assumptions about $8 million or $9 million per win need adjustment.

The back end of the deal, LeMahieu’s age-37 and 38 seasons, doesn’t look great, of course. In light of Yahoo Sports’ Tim Brown reporting that LeMahieu’s camp expected something in the vicinity of Josh Donaldson‘s four year, $92 million deal and J.D. Martinez’s five-year, $110 one, we might think of this one at four years and $90 million, with two complete freebies tacked on at the end. Szymborski told me that ZiPS’ contract estimate was for five years and $109 million, again, an AAV in the $22 million range. That’s well beyond the estimates of Craig Edwards (three years, $31 million) and our crowdsource median (three years, $42 million) from our Top 50 Free Agents list, where Edwards rated LeMahieu as this winter’s sixth most desirable free agent while wondering aloud:

Will bidding be pushed over $50 million when Cesar Hernandez and Jurickson Profar are available for a fraction of the cost? LeMahieu’s Statcast numbers weren’t as rosy as his results, with a drop in launch angle putting him more at the mercy of batted ball luck. On the other hand, Mike Moustakas received four years and $64 million a year ago and LeMahieu is better than Moustakas even if he’s a year older.

The Yankees obviously see LeMahieu differently, and did all along. Indeed, in mid-December, general manager Brian Cashman told reporters, “We’re working on it. I promise you that. He is this winter’s priority.” On Thursday, however, The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler characterized the situation as a stare down between the two sides, and earlier this week, Brown reported that LeMahieu had instructed his representatives to re-engage with the other teams that had pursued him or expressed interest previously this offseason, a list that included three that appeared serious (the Blue Jays, Dodgers, and Mets) and five others that at least kicked the tires (Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Nationals, and Red Sox). When I awoke Friday morning, I was set to finish off a roundup of how he would fit into those various lineups and what it might mean for the rest of their winter shopping. Instead, there was news — MLB’s Jon Morosi was first to report that a deal was approaching — and well, here we are.

LeMahieu is just the third of our top 13 free agents to sign, and the only one of the trio who wasn’t on the clock: Ha-seong Kim 김하성 signed with the Padres after being posted by the KBO’s Kiwoom Heroes, while Marcus Stroman accepted a qualifying offer from the Mets. The recent movement in the reliever market — Liam Hendriks, Blake Treinen, Pedro Báez, Archie Bradley, and Hansel Robles have all inked deals in the past 10 days — suggests that the action could pick up, but comparatively speaking, how could it not? The question for the likes of J.T. Realmuto, George Springer, Trevor Bauer et al is how much LeMahieu’s low AAV and cost per win tells us about the rest of the market.

By coming in with a $15 million AAV, LeMahieu does the Yankees a favor. Via RosterResource, their payroll for tax purposes is around $195 million, which leaves them just $15 million shy of the CBT threshold while still needing to bolster a rotation that has shed Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and James Paxton in free agency. Their departures leave a comparatively untested bunch — Jordan Montgomery, Michael King, rookies Deivi García and Clarke Schmidt, and the recently reinstated Domingo Germán — behind Gerrit Cole, at least until Luis Severino returns from a February 2020 Tommy John surgery. If they’re to avoid going over $210 million, which is apparently the plan, they’d need to maneuver their roster to bring in more than one proven starter. An incentive-based deal for Paxton or Corey Kluber, both returning from significant injuries, might be the route they travel unless they can trade for a pre-arbitration or arbitration-eligible starter.

Lineup-wise, LeMahieu’s return effectively commits the Yankees to sticking with Gleyber Torres at shortstop, though his defensive work there thus far (-9.7 UZR, -12 DRS, -11 OAA in 1,132.1 innings) has been decidedly subpar. While LeMahieu could continue to fill in at third base and first base in addition to second, the Yankees have ample coverage at both positions assuming Gio Urshela rebounds from surgery to remove a bone chip from his right elbow, but affording a true shortstop — maybe Andrelton Simmons on a short-term deal as he rebounds from two injury-wracked seasons — while also fortifying the rotation probably isn’t doable without going past $210 million. Which, make no mistake, the Yankees can afford, but they’re choosing not to, and acting accordingly, which limits their options.

Still, that’s a problem for another day. The return of LeMahieu is a significant move for them, and should open the door to whatever other deals they have in store, free agent or trade, while also helping to thaw the free agent market in general. Now, can I interest you in an obsolete take on how “The Machine” would fit the lineups of the Dodgers, Mets, Blue Jays, Cardinals…?

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Smiling Politelymember
3 years ago

So if you’re LA, would you rather re-sign Hernandez or Turner (if you had to choose)?