In 1st year with NY, LeMahieu a 'game-changer'

October 7th, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS – Months before established his place as one of the most indispensable Yankees, with each of his big hits prompting Gary Sánchez to stalk the length of the dugout and scream, “The Machine!” to anyone within earshot, there was an internal debate concerning if LeMahieu would fit on their roster at all.

It seems ridiculous now, considering LeMahieu’s terrific consistency atop the lineup and at three infield positions, but the picture wasn’t so clear this past winter. General manager Brian Cashman needed to be convinced that LeMahieu filled a need, never anticipating that the 31-year-old would earn manager Aaron Boone’s choice as the team’s 2019 MVP and become one of the top pieces on a club that is one win away from sweeping the Twins in the American League Division Series.

“My reaction, quite honestly, was: ‘How's that fit?’” Cashman said. “He was an everyday second baseman, a Gold Glove second baseman. We already had a second baseman in Gleyber Torres and a third baseman in Miguel Andujar -- obviously, he wasn’t hurt at that point. And then we had [shortstop] Didi Gregorius coming back in the summertime. I didn't understand where he’d fit.”

Cashman credits several members of the front-office staff for repeatedly pushing for LeMahieu, name-checking assistant general manager Michael Fishman, director of baseball operations Matt Ferry and special assignment scout Jim Hendry, among others. Cashman said that they “were pounding their desks” to pursue LeMahieu.

The pro-LeMahieu group, which also included vice president of baseball operations Tim Naehring and scouts Matt Daley and Dan Giese, insisted that LeMahieu would play above-average defense at first, second and third base. Their adamant stance convinced Cashman, and LeMahieu’s two-year, $24 million contract arguably became the steal of the offseason.

“He’s been a game-changer for this roster and this franchise,” Cashman said. “It worked out extremely well, and to our benefit, and so I thank those individuals for pushing it -- and I’ll pat myself on the back for hiring people smarter than me.”

LeMahieu had offers from clubs who could promise a single position -- the Rays, New York’s American League East rivals, were one -- but LeMahieu told his agent, Joel Wolfe, that he wanted to be part of what was happening in The Bronx.

“They kind of framed it as, ‘You're going to play a lot,’” LeMahieu said. “We don't know where, positionally, but we're not going to sign you to be on the bench. Obviously, I was all right with that.”

Hendry, who was the Cubs’ GM in 2009, when they made LeMahieu the No. 79 overall pick out of Louisiana State University, said that LeMahieu’s strong makeup and work ethic have not changed since his college days. Hendry believes that LeMahieu’s projected defensive versatility sealed the Yankees’ decision.

“Cash had known my affection for him for years,” Hendry said. “The fit was, he's just got it. It might have been that on paper we’d try to get him 500 at-bats at different spots, but it worked out even better than you could draw it up because of the injury factor.

“Those of us that knew him knew that it would take care of itself. I knew we had someone that would contribute in a major way. I didn’t know he was going to play at an MVP caliber, but I knew that the moment wouldn’t get him in New York.”

The 2016 National League batting champ with the Rockies, LeMahieu shrugged off concerns that he would be able to perform outside of Colorado’s thin air, setting career highs in runs (109), hits (197), homers (26), extra-base hits (61), RBIs (102) and multi-hit games (59) this season.

“I think the chance to be a Yankee is special,” LeMahieu said. “Looking from the outside in the last couple of years, the talent here is something I wanted to be a part of. It’s even better than I thought. Just how they run things, the commitment to winning here is like nothing I've been a part of.”

LeMahieu did all that while logging a .327 batting average -- the Yanks’ highest since Derek Jeter hit .334 in 2009.

“From Day 1, DJ has felt very comfortable here,” Boone said. “There's a way that he goes about in his work that is really efficient, and he works really hard, but I think it's been something that's rubbed off on guys, too. He’s been one of the tone-setters, in a lot of ways.”

After LeMahieu homered and drove in two runs in a May 31 win over the Red Sox, Boone gushed that LeMahieu seemed like he was “out there to rip your heart out.” That especially seemed true when the stakes were at their highest.

With runners in scoring position, LeMahieu led the Majors with a .389 average, the best by a Yankees hitter since Paul O’Neill’s .428 in 1997. Aaron Judge raved about LeMahieu’s cool confidence in keeping the bat in the strike zone, something he tries to emulate.

“It’s not, ‘Is he going to drive somebody in?’ It's, ‘How many is he going to drive in?’” Judge said. “It's been a pleasure to play with him. He's just a professional at-bat every time he goes up there. We found a diamond in the rough right there. He's something special.”