Lineup crunch a 'good problem' for LeMahieu

Yankees confident they will find at-bats for 2020 AL batting champ

March 31st, 2022

TAMPA, Fla. -- It's a head-scratcher of a Rubik’s Cube, one that the Yankees remain confident can be solved. DJ LeMahieu is one of the team’s best offensive players, but as Opening Day approaches, no one in camp can say precisely when or where he’ll be digging into the batter’s box.

“It’s just going to be nine players for eight spots,” LeMahieu said. “I hope everyone does well, is healthy and has great years -- but I mean, we all know how the season goes. Hopefully we’re all just clicking and everything is rolling, but I don’t think depth is a bad thing to have, that’s for sure.”

One year removed from winning the American League’s batting title with a .364 average during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, the 33-year-old LeMahieu appears poised for a bounce-back. He has been driving balls to the right-center-field gap, suggesting he has fully recovered from offseason core surgery.

“I just feel really good this spring,” LeMahieu said. “I’m in a good place; I feel healthy. I kind of forgot what 'good' feels like, body-wise. So I’m just really excited to get going.”

The Yanks’ working plan is to utilize LeMahieu in a role similar to one envisioned before his 2019 arrival in the Bronx, bouncing between first base, second base and third base -- a valuable jack of many trades. LeMahieu said that the issued marching orders were that “they weren’t really sure either, so just be ready for whatever.”

“It’ll work itself out,” manager Aaron Boone said. “Maybe you do a little more outward planning when they’re all healthy, but as far as how I’m going to get him in -- even if they’re all healthy for 162 games in the year, they’re all going to get a lot of at-bats.”

Boone said he’d like to have LeMahieu’s bat-to-ball skills in the heart of the lineup behind high on-base players like Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo, but he also figures to use LeMahieu in the leadoff spot “a fair bit.” It’s a complicated blueprint, considering that general manager Brian Cashman reworked the left side of the infield by acquiring third baseman Josh Donaldson and shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa.

Donaldson might spend some time in the designated hitter role on days when Giancarlo Stanton rests or plays the outfield. Second baseman Gleyber Torres should see regular duty in the middle infield, as he's driving the ball consistently this spring and appearing more comfortable since the end of his shortstop experiment.

LeMahieu thought he’d use his first baseman’s glove plenty this spring, but when Anthony Rizzo signed a two-year, $32 million deal on March 17, it effectively ended Luke Voit’s pinstriped tenure and again tossed LeMahieu’s status into flux.

“Last year, I ended up playing a lot of first until we got Rizzo,” LeMahieu said. “The year before, I was playing a lot of third base. It’s just kind of the same as other years. We just got more better players to come in.”

The Yankees agree that LeMahieu is one of their top hitters -- could he really be watching from the bench on April 7, when they host the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium? Boone isn’t tipping his hand, offering only: “We’ll see.”

“One of those guys is going to have to sit, and it’s going to be an uncomfortable situation,” said bench coach Carlos Mendoza. “But we’re having that conversation. We’ve started that conversation with all of them. They understand. DJ’s going to get his at-bats, because of the versatility and who he is.”

Mendoza pointed to the schedule, which has the Yanks playing games on nine consecutive days after the April 8 off-day, noting that players will need days off early on. Whether LeMahieu is in the year’s first lineup or not, he looks around the Bombers’ infield and he says “loves the vibe” they have:

On Rizzo: “Really excited. I thought he was a huge addition for us last year. He helped out our ballclub a ton.”

On Torres: “He looks really good at the plate. He’s hitting the ball hard. He looks good, he looks confident. He’s going to do some big things this year.”

On Kiner-Falefa/Donaldson: “I like those guys. I mean, I liked Gio [Urshela] and Gary [Sánchez] as well. But I like both of those guys. I’ve had a lot of respect for playing against them, and now to bounce stuff off and play with them, it’s been great.”

So again, how, when and where will LeMahieu get the plate appearances he needs? The Yankees can’t say for certain. They simply promise that he will, leaning upon baseball’s 162-game gauntlet -- be it by injuries, schedule or fatigue -- to produce a solution.

“I’m not worried about it,” LeMahieu said. “It’s a good problem to have.”