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DJ LeMahieu's Team-Friendly $90M Deal Keeps Yankees' World Series Window Open

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 15, 2021

New York Yankees' DJ LeMahieu rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Minnesota Twins during the sixth inning of Game 1 of an American League Division Series baseball game, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Evidently aware that they would have been in a tight spot if DJ LeMahieu had signed elsewhere in free agency, the New York Yankees aren't letting that happen.

As Jon Morosi of MLB.com was first to report, the Yankees and LeMahieu are going to reunite after spending the 2019 and 2020 seasons together. According to ESPN's Jeff Passan, it will be via a six-year deal worth $90 million.

Once LeMahieu's deal is finalized, the Yankees will have fulfilled by far their biggest need and boosted their World Series window accordingly. Yet they'll also still have work to do.

     

DJ LeMahieu's Resume

  • 32 years old
  • Second-round pick by the Chicago Cubs in 2009
  • MLB debut on May 30, 2011
  • .305 career batting average
  • Led MLB in batting average in 2016 and 2020
  • Three-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner
  • Two-time Silver Slugger
  • Top-five finisher in American League MVP voting in 2019 and 2020
  • .336/.386/.536 slash line in two seasons with Yankees

      

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A Long, Yet Fair Contract for Arguably the Best Hitter in Baseball

It was only a few days ago that LeMahieu seemed poised to move on from the Yankees. Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports reported the veteran had asked his representatives to reengage with other teams.

That bunch was headlined by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets, yet also included the St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox and Atlanta. In short, LeMahieu's list of options outside New York was long.

The Yankees had to have LeMahieu back, however, because there was no better way to fill their hole at second base than with the best hitter in baseball.

Or at least, such is the opinion of slugging first baseman Luke Voit: "I think he's the best hitter in baseball. I'm literally sitting next to a printer right now, and it makes me think of DJ because he's a freaking machine. We need him!"

Debatable? Absolutely. As good as LeMahieu is with a bat in his hands, he doesn't have the same combination of patience and power as, say, Mike Trout, Juan Soto and Mookie Betts.

But when it comes to the actual act of hitting the baseball, LeMahieu indeed stands apart.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Out of all hitters who've taken at least 800 plate appearances over the last two seasons, LeMahieu ranks fifth with a 12.7 strikeout percentage. Moreover, only Jose Abreu has collected more hard-hit (i.e., with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph) batted balls since 2019.

After hitting just 49 home runs through his first eight seasons, LeMahieu also racked up 36 in 2019 and 2020. That speaks to how well Yankee Stadium's short porch accommodates his opposite-field power, as he hit 16 of his 19 homers to right field—a high among right-handed hitters—at home.

The obligatory catch is that six years is too long for a 32-year-old, much less one whose defense and speed are already cracking. But according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, it was the cost of doing business for the Yankees:

Jon Heyman @JonHeyman

Blue Jays offered $78M for 4 years for LeMahieu, showing they meant business. Yankees had been in that ballpark for 4 as well, but the sides agreed on a longer agreement instead. Helps Yanks AAV, and thus their tax.

Had they simply matched the Blue Jays' offer, they would have incurred a $19.5 million hit to their luxury-tax status for 2021 and future seasons. By opting for a longer deal, they ensured just a $15 million tax hit annually.

LeMahieu thus did the Yankees a solid even as he satisfied his own interest by accepting a larger overall guarantee, in that they now have more leeway to pursue further additions.

      

Where the Yankees Stand Now

Even though their deal with LeMahieu is their first major move of the offseason, the Yankees might be the best team in the American League right now.

If nothing else, this starting lineup sure looks like the best the Junior Circuit has to offer:

  1. 2B DJ LeMahieu
  2. RF Aaron Judge
  3. CF Aaron Hicks
  4. DH Giancarlo Stanton
  5. 1B Luke Voit
  6. SS Gleyber Torres
  7. LF Clint Frazier
  8. 3B Gio Urshela
  9. C Gary Sanchez

These are the same nine guys who led the charge to AL-best marks for runs per game (5.3) and OPS+ (117) in 2020. That was despite down years from Torres and Sanchez, as well as injury-shortened seasons on the parts of Judge and Stanton.

Overall, FanGraphs projects the Yankees to produce the most WAR of any AL team this year. Assuming Major League Baseball plays a full 162-game slate after the pandemic shortened last season to 60 games, that points the Yankees in the direction of their third 100-win season out of the last four.

Still, whether the Yankees are good enough to win or even make it to the World Series—something they haven't done since 2009—remains a fair question.

     

Up Next for the Yankees? Pitching

Though LeMahieu's absence at second base stood out the most, it was also hard to ignore the massive hole in New York's rotation once Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and James Paxton became free agents.

That hole still exists, yet at least there's now greater clarity on how the Yankees might fill it.

For luxury-tax purposes, their projected 2021 payroll is barely north of $195 million. That's about $15 million short of this year's $210 million threshold for penalties, which is enough to sign at least one veteran starter in free agency.

Though reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer is out of the question at that rate, it could be enough to lure back Tanaka. Or the Yankees could pursue a replacement, such as two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber.

The Yankees are interested in him, according to The Athletic's Jim Bowden, as well as a high-profile trade candidate in the person of Cincinnati Reds ace Luis Castillo:

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What's next for the @Yankees? https://t.co/xxzvP4qp0m

Per Bryan Hoch of MLB.com, two more trade possibilities for the Yankees include Pittsburgh Pirates righties Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon.

The Yankees should be able to land at least one of these guys, in which case their chances of returning to the Fall Classic would look that much better. Indeed, they'll only improve once hard-throwing righty Luis Severino makes his return from Tommy John surgery in the summer.

Ultimately, the Yankees might look back on their reunion with LeMahieu as the first sign that 2021 would be a very good year.

       

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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