DJ LeMahieu‘s free agency and what to do with the starting rotation are the pressing offseason topics for the New York Yankees. The answer to those dilemmas? Prioritize re-signing LeMahieu and develop the young starting pitchers.
LeMahieu is the Yankees’ best position player. He holds a reliable glove at second base and has played three positions across his two seasons in New York (first, second, and third base). Furthermore, he’s an indispensable component of manager Aaron Boone‘s offensive attack.
The second baseman does it all at the plate. He has a smooth, line-drive swing, hits for power, puts the ball in play at an elite rate, and is one of the hardest outs in Major League Baseball. Across 195 games in pinstripes, LeMahieu has hit .336, posted a .922 OPS and a 145 OPS+, and totaled 36 home runs and 129 RBIs. Most of that production has come with him hitting at the top of the order.
The Yankees can’t afford to lose him.
This is an offense with a lot of pop, which LeMahieu contributes to. Simultaneously, he’s one of their lone bats who’s multidimensional. While the likes of Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, and Gary Sanchez are considerable threats in the batter’s box, they tend to be primarily power threats and, consequently, strikeout prone.
LeMahieu has a 268:111 hit-to-strikeout ratio in his two seasons with the Yankees.
Him getting on base sets the table for Judge, Torres, and Luke Voit to do damage. Given his long swing and keen ability to make contact, LeMahieu can generate offense on his own at the top of the order. Gio Urshela is another one of the Yankees’ more proven contact hitters, but he alone can’t make up for the tendencies of those around him.
Many of the pitchers on the open market present more of the same for the Yankees: respectable starters with some intrigue or a proven track record but have become middle-of-the-rotation arms.
How much better and appealing are those pitchers than James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka, who are also part of that free agent class and have stat lines that fall in line with the above starters in recent memory?
Garcia reached the big leagues this season. Although he didn’t provide length and was a bit shaky, he had his moments. Garcia showcased an ability to paint the outside corner with his off-speed pitches and struck out hitters at a respectable rate.
Montgomery made it back to the team’s rotation after not being a fixture since 2017 due to injuries. Like Garcia, Montgomery didn’t wow anybody. At the same time, he got back into the swing of pitching every fifth day. King didn’t have a consistent spot on the pitching staff, but he showed some promise in the innings he pitched at the big-league level, flashing a promising sinker and working through jams. Meanwhile, Loaisiga posted a 3.52 ERA across 12 appearances.
Clarke Schmidt, the organization’s top pitching prospect, has a mere MLB start under his belt. Maybe Luis Severino can get healthy and give the Yankees 20 starts next season. Anything they get from him is a welcome bonus and helps offset the development of some of the aforementioned youngsters.
All six of these pitchers will be 28 or younger by opening day next season. There’s room for growth with all of them.
Trevor Bauer is the headliner of the free agent pitching market, and rightfully so. He was superb in the sport’s 60-game regular season, threw 7.2 shutout innings in Game 1 of the Cincinnati Reds’ National League Wild Card Series matchup with the Atlanta Braves, and has the makeup of an ace.
Why doesn’t backing up the truck for Bauer make all of the sense in the world? The Yankees gave Gerrit Cole $324 million last offseason; that was their premier pitching move. Their rotation collapsed because Severino had Tommy John surgery and James Paxton suffered a back injury which he never seemed to fully recover from.
The Yankees are second in MLB in payroll for 2021 and likely don’t want to go too much higher given that all aspects of the sport are losing money due to the complications of the coronavirus pandemic.
LeMahieu is 32 and has an offensive skill set that is undermined on a daily basis, as many value slug over pure contact. But it’s an anomaly that the Yankees need in their lineup. LeMahieu likely cashes in on a shorter deal in the ballpark of three-to-four years and a $20 million salary. His production and role in their offense warrants that payday.
A six-to-seven-year deal with a $25-plus million salary for Bauer and a three-year deal in the neighborhood of a $20 million salary would be pushing the Yankees payroll to extremes moving forward.
Let’s say the young arms take the next step in 2021, pitching a little deeper into games and posting ERAs around four: their rotation is as good as it was last season and has more upside given how raw it would be. It’s Cole and a few budding arms. Two years from now that could be an elite rotation.
Paying DJ LeMahieu and developing the young starters is the resourceful route for the New York Yankees. They can internally replace a starting pitcher. They can’t internally replace LeMahieu.