Free-agent debate: Where will DJ sign?
The Hot Stove season is underway, and much of the free-agent attention is focused on five players: J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer, DJ LeMahieu, George Springer and Marcell Ozuna. Where will these players land? MLB.com reporters gathered a roundtable to discuss.
In this installment, we debate LeMahieu.
Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter, moderator): Do we appreciate DJ LeMahieu enough outside of New York? How does he stack up against the other big free agents?
Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand, executive reporter): Ranking these guys is tough, because they all play different positions. LeMahieu is clearly the best infielder available, and he’s probably the best pure hitter. But at 32, he’s also the oldest of the five, which works against him to some extent.
Unlike when he played in Colorado, I think he’s become appreciated outside of New York because the Yankees are such a national team. Finishing fourth and third in MVP voting the last two years helps, too.
Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch, Yankees beat reporter): I'll tell you this: I didn't appreciate LeMahieu enough until I had a chance to watch him play every day. In some ways, I probably thought of him as a creation of Coors Field, even though he wasn't one of the Blake Street Bombers-type power hitters. He's just an all-around terrific player, a bat-to-ball stud in an era when homers and strikeouts are the norm.
The best compliment I can give him is that he would have fit on any team in Yankees history. You want to stick him at second base with Ruth and Gehrig? Mantle and Maris? Go for it. They would have been happy to have him.
Feinsand: Ruth and Gehrig? He’s not THAT old, Hoch!
Hoch: I think DJ would have loved riding the sleeper cars. The wool uniforms, maybe not so much.
Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports, MLB.com reporter/editor): Age definitely is a factor in ranking him, but he is also such a solid hitter -- something that won’t fade and isn’t subject to as much concern, aging-wise. There’s an aging profile, of course, but it shouldn’t work against him as much. And I agree with Mark, that playing in New York has definitely added to the broader appreciation for him.
Feinsand: LeMahieu is 32. Just a year ago, Josh Donaldson got four years and $92 million at the age of 34. And LeMahieu is coming off of two superb seasons, while Donaldson was fresh off a solid 2019 season but had injury issues prior to that. We’re not talking about a seven- or eight-year deal here. He should have little trouble finding a team willing to sign him for four years, through age 36.
Footer: Where does LeMahieu fall on the list of the Yankees’ priorities?
Hoch: If I'm Brian Cashman, LeMahieu is my top target going into the winter. I just don't see how you can make a case that the team will be better without him. They want to get to the World Series, and I see him as part of the solution, not the problem. Even if he loses a step defensively over the next three or four years, his contact ability and opposite-field power in Yankee Stadium should remain. This is your leadoff hitter, your tone setter. As far as retaining their own free agents, I put him ahead of Masahiro Tanaka, and certainly ahead of James Paxton and J.A. Happ.
Feinsand: I’d have to think that LeMahieu is their No. 1 priority. Tanaka is a guy I believe they want to bring back, but there are pitchers out there in free agency and on the trade market that could fill his spot if he left. There is nobody that can do what LeMahieu can do for the Yankees.
Langs: I agree with Bryan and Mark. Luke Voit blossomed for the Yankees over the last two years, and Giancarlo Stanton showed -- especially in the playoffs -- what he can be for them. But DJ was the core of this offense for the last two years, and the most reliable and consistent part of it -- day in and day out. That’s very hard to replace, and the other notable bats on the market aren’t that kind of bat necessarily. The Yankees’ offense would look entirely different next year without LeMahieu or a very similar other player -- who isn’t necessarily available via free agency, anyway.
Hoch: One other note here: If the Yankees really are going forward with Gleyber Torres as their shortstop of the future -- and I'm not convinced that's a given -- then LeMahieu provides a stabilizing presence up the middle. Cashman likes to say that he learned from Gene Michael that championship teams have to have strong "spines" ... catcher, shortstop, second base, center field. At least defensively, they were weak at shortstop this year.
Footer: As an outside observer all the way down in Houston, I haven't paid as much attention to the LeMahieu market because I guess I'm sort of assuming the Yankees will re-sign him. It just feels like the Yankees want him the most, appreciate him the most (at this specific moment) and usually get what they want. Am I being a little premature?
Feinsand: I think everything you say is accurate. But that doesn’t mean they’ll re-sign him. He’s been an elite player the past two years, and there will be several teams that will make a run at him. I don’t think the Rockies will be one of them, however. The finances just don’t seem to match up. But other teams could make things difficult for the Yankees. That said, I can’t think of the last time the Yankees let a free agent leave the Bronx that they really wanted to bring back.
Hoch: Hal Steinbrenner likes to say that whenever money comes off the payroll, they're consistent about reinvesting it into the team. They've got money to outbid anyone on a LeMahieu contract, considering you've got DJ, Tanaka, Happ, Paxton and Brett Gardner all coming off. But Cashman might only have one or two big bullets to fire this offseason -- remember, the Yankees say they lost more money this year than any other team. What's the domino effect of that? I anticipate, at the least, they'll try to get payroll under $210 million. You can still get LeMahieu and get under that, but it might not allow you to do everything else.
Feinsand: To me, this is where the return of Luis Severino and Domingo Germán come into play. If they’re happy going into the 2021 season with Gerrit Cole, Severino, Jordan Montgomery, Germán and Deivi García as their rotation, it’s a no-brainer that LeMahieu is back. Even if they re-sign Tanaka, LeMahieu fits.
Langs: It’s just hard to see a player who’s been this valuable to the team leaving. Especially when we know they have the money to re-sign him available -- and this isn’t a $200 million contract that we’re talking about. In two years, he’s so quickly become the Yankee, in so many ways. And there’s no question the team knows his value more than any other -- even with other teams definitely interested and aware.
Footer: Mark listed five teams that could pursue LeMahieu: Yankees, Mets, Rockies, Dodgers, Cardinals. I’m intrigued by the Dodgers. LeMahieu is four years younger than Justin Turner and could fit in well in that lineup (who wouldn’t?). You think the Dodgers would move on from a beloved franchise player and pursue LeMahieu?
Feinsand: I think they’re going to take a similar approach that they did with Derek Jeter late in his career. Go out, see what’s on the market, and come back to us once you have an idea of what your market is. LeMahieu will get a good deal, but Cashman isn’t one to bid against himself.
Hoch: "Shop it." Man, Derek did not like that.
Feinsand: The Dodgers are interesting. Andrew Friedman has still not signed a free agent to a nine-figure contract, but it’s not going to take nine figures to sign LeMahieu. I think Turner winds up back in L.A., which would likely take the Dodgers out of the LeMahieu market, but if Turner leaves, I could certainly see Friedman pursuing LeMahieu.
Langs: LeMahieu’s positional versatility fits in exactly with what we see with so many Dodgers players during their current multi-season run. That part does seem to fit them very well -- though moving on from Turner would definitely be a big shift, as you both said.
Feinsand: The Cardinals are a team to watch. They badly need offense, and LeMahieu’s versatility would be a plus. I think George Springer is a better fit in St. Louis because the outfield need is greater, but the Cards did just sever ties with Kolten Wong, so there’s a big void at second base at the moment.
Hoch: I'm glad you brought up the versatility. There has been a suggestion that the Yankees could trade Voit for a pitcher or a shortstop, then put Gleyber at second base. It wouldn't be my first move, but in that scenario, you can have DJ at first base. He's plenty capable there.
Langs: Dan Szymborski just posted a preview of the ZiPS projections for the Yankees for 2021 -- looking at WAR for each position for the club, based on the current roster. The current outlook of Thairo Estrada/Tyler Wade (just based on their existing roster) is projected for 0.4 WAR -- which goes in stark contrast to pretty much every other position on the field for the Yankees. Gleyber and Aaron Judge are both projected for big years, and there are solid numbers for Voit and Stanton, too. So second base looks like an even bigger hole in comparison, unless DJ is back -- or it could be Gleyber, with Francisco Lindor at shortstop as some have suggested.
LeMahieu is projected to hit .306 next year -- which would be 20-plus points in batting average higher than any other Yankees regular, along with 4.2 WAR, which would be right behind projections for Torres and Judge.
Feinsand: I don’t want to stray too far, but I don’t see any way the Yankees trade for Lindor. They would have to give up a serious package of prospects, beginning with Jasson Dominguez. I just don’t see Cashman doing that, especially when it would also mean giving Lindor $300 million to keep him. They would be more likely to just wait a year and pay for him without giving up their top prospect and more.
Footer: I was also intrigued by the idea of the Rockies, given LeMahieu's history with that franchise. But at this point, I would think winning is of the most importance, since he’s not getting any younger. You think the winning factor will be something he weighs?
Hoch: I think that might be the factor for LeMahieu, a chance to win a championship. He had a chance to experience postseason play in each of the last two years, and he said recently on MLB Network that he thought the postseason was great -- even without fans in the stands. I'm thinking specifically of that home run he hit in the 2019 American League Championship Series, right before Jose Altuve won the pennant. That was a big moment. You want another chance at that.
Footer: Time for predictions -- where will LeMahieu sign? Go!
Feinsand: It’s not an exciting prediction, but I think he’s back with the Yankees on a four-year deal in the $80 million range. (Well, I guess it’s exciting for Yankees fans.)
Hoch: Yankees. Three years, $60 million, with some creative, reachable option for a fourth year.
Langs: It’s hard to envision him anywhere other than the Yankees at this point -- definitely seems like he will re-sign, in the three- to four-year range. And just keep hitting.
Feinsand: I could also see three years with an option containing a sizable buyout. If David John goes long gone, there may be serious anger in New York. DJ has become the most popular player on the team, which is rather incredible.
Footer: That's baseball, Suzyn.