Like everyone who cares deeply about the Yankees, Luke Voit wanted the team to do one thing above all else this past offseason: re-sign DJ LeMahieu.
Unlike the fan base, which relied on social media to voice that same wish, Voit had a direct pipeline to the three-time All-Star. And so, not long after the Yankees were eliminated by the Rays in the 2020 American League Division Series and LeMahieu officially became a free agent, Voit began reaching out regularly to his buddy, calling or texting him for updates on the status of the negotiations.
Finally, in late January, Voit was on the receiving end of a call from LeMahieu, and it was with great relief and excitement that the 32-year-old had some good news to share:
“I’m coming back.”
It became official on Jan. 27. The Yankees announced they had signed LeMahieu to a six-year deal that will keep him in pinstripes through 2026.
“We got ‘The Machine’ back, so life is good,” Voit said, echoing the feelings of Yankees fans everywhere. “He’s the best hitter in baseball, and he’s a table-setter for us. It was key for us getting him back, along with the other moves, as well, so it’s been a good offseason.”
Indeed, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and his staff went to work over the winter, making moves with the intent of finally getting over the hump and returning to the World Series for the first time since winning it in 2009. And while re-signing LeMahieu was at the top of the to-do list, the other transactions have the potential for major impacts.
“Just really excited. Really excited,” LeMahieu told reporters during a Jan. 28 Zoom conference call, his stone-faced expression, as one might expect, reflecting exactly none of that excitement. “I thought the whole time we could get something done. It wasn’t happening, so I just didn’t know what the heck was going on. But just relieved, excited, ready to go. I felt like I wanted to work out for a week straight after. I’m ready to get down to Tampa again.”
LeMahieu is no Nick Swisher when it comes to showing his emotions, but his teammates don’t need him to be. Voit was far from the only one who pestered LeMahieu about returning to New York. In a relatively short time period -- a 2019 season and a truncated 60-game 2020 season that both yielded Top 5 finishes in the AL MVP Award voting -- LeMahieu has endeared himself to his Bronx teammates through his work ethic, his routine and his steadfast commitment to being the best possible player he can be. Without question, he has become a respected leader on the team, and there was a clear manifestation of that during that conference call.
Before the first question was asked, Yankees vice president of communications and media relations Jason Zillo indicated that LeMahieu wanted to say something. He began by stating that he was excited to be returning to the Yankees, but that he was disappointed to learn that Masahiro Tanaka -- who will return to his native Japan and pitch for his former team, Nippon Professional Baseball’s Rakuten Golden Eagles -- would not be.
“I just wanted to mention what a great teammate he’s been, what an impact he’s had on the Yankees, on the city, and, obviously, I wish him well and will be following him,” LeMahieu said. “As exciting as it is, I’m disappointed I’m not going to be able to play with him anymore. But I’m really happy for him, and just wanted to mention what a great teammate and what a great person he was.”
The fabric of baseball is stitched together by its numbers, and LeMahieu has certainly produced impressive ones. In 2020, he became the second player in Major League history to win a batting title in both leagues. His career-high .364 average was the highest by a Yankees batting champion since Joe DiMaggio hit .381 in 1939. And despite starting the season on the COVID-19 injured list and dealing with a thumb sprain that sent him to the 10-day IL in August, he led the majors with five leadoff home runs.
But LeMahieu’s status in the clubhouse stems from more than just the stats he puts up. The way he goes about his business; not just how much he works but how he works; how he speaks about his teammates, even after they have moved on -- these things all resonate.
“There’s no question he’s one of the leaders and somebody that so many people in our clubhouse not only look to, but look up to,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I talk to you guys a lot about our culture, and he is certainly one of the drivers of what I believe to be a very good one.”
With Tanaka moving on, a spot opened up in the rotation, and there will be two new faces in the mix this season, both of whom have battled injuries in recent years, but who come with extremely high upsides.
Corey Kluber has spent all but one inning of his decade in the bigs with Cleveland, capturing the AL Cy Young Award in 2014 and 2017. He has gone 98-58 with a 3.16 ERA, which trails only Clayton Kershaw (2.43) and Chris Sale (3.03) among active pitchers with at least 1,250 innings pitched. Kluber’s tenure in Cleveland came to a sudden end in May 2019, when he suffered a broken right forearm after being hit by a line drive in Miami. Traded to Texas that December, the right-hander appeared in just one game for the Rangers in 2020 before being diagnosed with a muscle tear in his throwing shoulder that ended his season. But he worked his way back to full health and, after putting on a showcase for major league scouts, decided New York was the right fit.
“One of my most important criteria was trying to identify a team that was a contender, that had a chance to win a World Series, and also a team that I felt like I could go there and have a chance to pitch well and contribute and be a part of that,” said Kluber, who turns 35 in April. “Obviously the Yankees are a historic franchise and they have a great fan base and a big following, so that’ll be, hopefully, over the course of the summer, something fun to be a part of when the fans are coming back to the stadium and stuff.”
Whereas Kluber had some familiarity with Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake from their time together in Cleveland, fellow newcomer Jameson Taillon was reunited with a member of the rotation itself: Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. Drafted second overall in 2010 by the Pirates out of The Woodlands High School in Texas, Taillon envisioned a formidable staff in Pittsburgh comprised of himself, Cole, Tyler Glasnow and Trevor Williams. It wasn’t to be, though, as injuries slowed Taillon’s trajectory and the organization went into a rebuild. After a career-best season in 2018, when he went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 32 starts, Taillon made just seven starts in 2019 before undergoing his second Tommy John surgery of his career. During the rehab process, he revamped his entire pitching motion and, now, having been acquired for four minor leaguers, he looks forward to rejoining forces with Cole and proving he is capable of being a top-of-the-rotation type starter.
“I’m recovering extremely well, and I’m really fired up to get on the mound,” the 29-year-old right-hander said. “Obviously that’s exciting, but none of that matters unless I go out and prove it and do it in a game situation. I’m ready to do that.
“Ever since I got the news that I was going to New York, I haven’t felt nervous, I haven’t felt overwhelmed, I’ve just been extremely excited for the opportunity. I feel like I’m at a maturity level and a point in my career and a point in my life where this is what I want. This is a team I want to be a part of. This is a team I want to help.”
Along with Kluber and Taillon, holdovers Jordan Montgomery, Domingo Germán, Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt and, eventually, Luis Severino, who underwent Tommy John surgery in late February of 2020, will all vie for starts. On paper, it is a talented group of pitchers. Boone likes their collective make-up as much as he does their individual talents, and he expects the newcomers will be great additions.
“I think in Taillon’s case, and Kluber’s case, for that matter, not only are we really excited about where they’re at right now physically and what they can bring between the lines, but we also feel like those are two guys that are going to be valuable contributors to our pitching culture,” the fourth-year skipper said. “Those conversations that you want to be happening all the time -- conversations that Gerrit drives a lot of times -- these are going to be two guys that are very much in that mix. Hopefully it’s something that helps our pitchers, as a group, grow because we’re adding two very high-character people. In the little bit I’ve gotten to talk to Jameson and Corey, and knowing where they’re at, and following their path here over the last several months, I’m really excited for them to get into our clubhouse and get with our guys and really start going out there and proving themselves. I feel like we got two special guys in Corey and Jameson.”
The Yankees’ lineup in 2021 should look much like it did in 2020. Aside from LeMahieu, the only position player move Cashman had made through early February was to bolster the team’s outfield depth by sending Minor League pitcher James Reeves to San Diego for Greg Allen. But Allen was designated for assignment on Feb. 23, the same day the Yankees re-signed veteran outfielder and fan favorite Brett Gardner.
The bullpen, despite having lost Adam Ottavino in a January transaction with Boston and parting ways with Tommy Kahnle and Jonathan Holder, also remains strong. The team exercised its 2022 club option for left-hander Zack Britton last October --Britton could have become a free agent had it not -- and added a pair of dynamic relievers in southpaw Justin Wilson and right-hander Darren O’Day. And as always, the front office continued to look for ways to improve. But while both manager and general manager acknowledged the health risks involved with the two starting pitching acquisitions, they both felt good about Kluber and Taillon as the team got ready to break camp.
“‘Hopeful’ is certainly an appropriate word in this,” Cashman said. “We made the commitment because we believe that despite the risk, it was a position worth taking, and now we’re going to test drive that for better or for worse. Clearly by placing the bet, we’re going to count on the better.”
As for the returning players, they believe the Yankees have what it takes to win it all this year. This group has come close, and the disappointing endings in recent years serve as fuel to get it done in ’21.
“There’s no secret: We need to get over that hump,” LeMahieu said. “There’s one goal with the Yankees, and that’s to win the World Series, and in my two years we haven’t been able to do it.
“That fire’s still burning until we win it, and I know we’re all excited to get back.”