Late last week the Yankees made what figures to be their final infield addition of the offseason. They agreed to a two-year, $24M contract with DJ LeMahieu. The signing came out of nowhere. There were no rumors connecting the Yankees to LeMahieu this offseason. Now he joins the infield mix. Anyway, here are some thoughts on the signing and what it means.
1. There are two ways to look at the LeMahieu signing. One is what he’ll provide on the field and what it means for the roster. We’ll get to that in a bit. The other is what it says about the Yankees, or, rather, what it reinforces about the Yankees, and that is they are willing to spend, but only to a certain point. That has been made crystal clear. They passed on Patrick Corbin to sign the cheaper (and not as good) J.A. Happ, and, barring a total surprise, they will pass on Manny Machado to sign the cheaper (and not as good) LeMahieu. That is disappointing at best and infuriating at worst. Machado (or Bryce Harper) would make the Yankees demonstrably better and don’t even waste your time trying to convince me otherwise. (People have tried all winter and nothing has been remotely close to compelling.) The Yankees did everything they needed to do leading up to this offseason. They developed a cheap homegrown core and they reset the luxury tax rate. Now they’re passing on two 26-year-old mega-talents for financial reasons. Even though the Yankees never came out and said they planned to spend big after resetting the luxury tax rate — that was an assumption made by fans and the media — I couldn’t blame fans for feeling conned right now. Ticket prices keep rising and I think many fans assumed getting under the luxury tax threshold was a good faith plan to put the Yankees in better position to spend big on stars. Instead, DJ LeMahieu. Maybe the Yankees will sign Machado or Harper. It’s possible as long as they remain free agents. Chances are they won’t though. Actions peak louder than words, and with their moves this offseason, the Yankees have told everyone they want to be good, but are unwilling to pay the price to acquire the best free agents, even when they are prime-aged generational talents. It is unfathomable to me a team in the Yankees’ position (or the Cubs’ position or the Dodgers’ position, for that matter) would pass on 26-year-old Machado and Harper.
2. Alright, on to the baseball portion of our program. The LeMahieu signing itself is fine. What it represents (no Machado) stinks, but the signing is fine. I’m glad the Yankees didn’t sit tight and assume Troy Tulowitzki will solve their middle infield issues with Didi Gregorius sidelined. You don’t have to try real hard to see a scenario in which Tulowitzki is hurt and/or ineffective early in the season, leading to Gleyber Torres and LeMahieu taking over the starting double play combination. In fact, I’d like the Yankees to go into the season with the Torres/LeMahieu middle infield tandem rather than the Tulowitzki/Torres tandem. That is almost certainly the best double play combination the Yankees can put on the field. We know that, at the very least, LeMahieu will play excellent second base defense. Tulowitzki is a giant unknown. Worth a league minimum roll of the dice, sure, but an unknown. The Yankees sound committed to giving Tulowitzki a chance to show he can contribute and hopefully he does. The more good players, the better. I’m just glad the Yankees brought in a quality middle infield insurance policy at a reasonable price — I’d rather have LeMahieu at two years and $24M than Jed Lowrie at two years and $20M because he’s four years younger and I think he’ll be the better player the next two years, and because he addresses the team’s biggest weakness (infield defense) — and if Tulowitzki isn’t cutting it, I hope they pull the plug quickly. The Yankees raised their internal replacement level with LeMahieu. When your starting shortstop has no firm return date from his major surgery and his replacement hasn’t played in 18 months, yeah, getting a guy like this is a smart move.
3. I don’t like the apparent plan to play LeMahieu at first base. I get that it’ll only happen occasionally, ideally only when Luke Voit (or Greg Bird) needs a day off, but I still don’t like it. Tulowitzki should be the backup first baseman. I say that because we can safely assume LeMahieu will be the better defensive middle infielder this season, in which case he should, you know, play the middle infield. Tulowitzki at short and LeMahieu at first won’t be quite as bad as the time the Yankees played Derek Jeter at short and Brendan Ryan at first base (that happened), but it would be close. The Yankees have strongly indicated Tulowitzki will be the shortstop though — Tulowitzki himself indicated he’d rather retire than move into a utility role — so it seems LeMahieu at first base will be a thing. I don’t like it. I expect him to be more than fine at third base given his athleticism and defensive chops. And, really, not liking LeMahieu at first base has more to do with wasting his defensive ability that worrying he’ll be a liability. Maybe Tulowitzki will be great at shortstop now that his nagging heel issues have been addressed, and playing him at short and LeMahieu at first will be no big deal. To me, it seems the best defensive alignment would have Torres at short, LeMahieu at second, and Tulowitzki at first.
4. LeMahieu’s offense is something we’ll surely look at more in-depth in the coming weeks. We know two things about him. One, Coors Field boosted his numbers. We know that because it boosts everyone’s numbers. The question is how much, and what do his numbers look like playing at sea level full-time? And two, LeMahieu is just different. In an era with huge power numbers and huge strikeout totals, LeMahieu is a throwback contact hitter who wears out right field as a right-handed hitter. That approach makes him an outlier these days. He can turn on a fastball and yank it out to left field …
5. If you’re skeptical about the LeMahieu signing, and I totally get it if you are, you should take solace in the other teams that were pursuing him. The Dodgers were after LeMahieu, per Jon Morosi. The Athletics were after LeMahieu, per Susan Slusser. The Nationals were after LeMahieu, per Bob Nightengale. The Giants and new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, most recently the Dodgers GM, were after LeMahieu, per Ken Rosenthal. Those are some pretty smart teams. There is mounting evidence Coors Field park factors are screwed up and unfairly punishing Rockies players — Baseball Prospectus and their new Deserved Runs Created (DRC+) park factors say LeMahieu was a top 20 player in baseball last year — and the fact a bunch of really smart teams were after him suggests there is some validity to that. Taking a player’s road numbers and declaring that the real him is overly simplistic, and that is especially true with Rockies players, who essentially see two completely different sets of pitches (pitches at altitude and pitches at sea level) because of the way the ball interacts with the thin mountain air. Breaking balls don’t spin the same way in Coors Field. Imagine facing the same pitcher with different stuff in different ballparks? There are signs LeMahieu is a better hitter than the raw stats — even the park-adjusted stats — would lead you believe. That so many smart teams were pursuing him makes me believe that is the case.
6. The LeMahieu signing gives the Yankees some Gregorius insurance for 2020. Brian Cashman says the Yankees want to keep Gregorius long-term and that’s great. Everyone loves Sir Didi. The fact of the matter is the two sides have not yet agreed to a multi-year contract extension — he signed a one-year deal worth $11.75M last week — and Gregorius is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. What happens if his rehab hits a snag and takes longer than expected, or he comes back and isn’t the same player? I don’t think it’ll happen, but it is possible. If the Yankees are unable to work out an extension with Gregorius or something goes wrong with his rehab, they know they can roll with Torres and LeMahieu on the middle infield in 2020. We’re not going to spend next offseason wondering how the Yankees will replace Gregorius again. His replacement is already in-house. And, if Gregorius does come back fine and the two sides work out an extension, then LeMahieu resumes the same utility role the Yankees apparently have planned for him now. Hopefully the Yankees and Gregorius work out a sensible extension soon. He is good and fun, and good and fun players are always worth keeping. At least now the team has some middle infield protection in case things go wrong somewhere along the line.
7. Eventually I’ll put together a full payroll breakdown like last season. For now, my quick math has the 2019 luxury tax payroll at $219.5M with LeMahieu, assuming Luis Severino wins his arbitration hearing. (If he loses, it’ll be $218.65M.) Subtracting Sonny Gray’s entire $7.5M salary — doesn’t that feel inevitable? — gets the Yankees down to $212M. The luxury tax threshold is $206M. At this point, there is almost no way for the Yankees to get under (and stay under) the threshold. They’d have to do something drastic like trade Dellin Betances and replace him with a league minimum player, and no. Just no. The number to pay attention to now is $226M. That is the second luxury tax tier. Right now the Yankees will be taxed 20% on every dollar over $206M. If they exceed $226M, they get hit with a 32% surtax and their top draft pick in 2020 moves back ten spots. On one hand, now that the Yankees are over the $206M threshold, they might as well keep spending. If not on Machado or Harper, then at least on another reliever like Adam Ottavino. Heck, they could trade Gray and give Ottavino something like $12M per year, and still remain under the $226M threshold. On the other hand, now that the Yankees are over the threshold, there might be a mandate to keep the penalty as low as possible. I think the most likely scenario is the $226M threshold is the new “do not cross” line, and, if that is correct, the Yankees still have money to play with this winter, assuming they do move Gray at some point, which I expect to happen. LeMahieu pushes the Yankees over the luxury tax threshold. At this point, they might as well go get Ottavino as well.
8. Not-so-bold prediction: We’re going to do the “the Yankees want to get under the luxury tax threshold” thing again in 2021. I say that for three reasons. One, 2021 is the final season under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, and I think every team will want to go into the next CBA with a clean luxury tax slate. Two, the luxury tax might go away in the next CBA (unlikely, but possible), so 2021 could be every team’s last chance to treat the threshold as a de facto salary cap, so they’ll take advantage. And three, the Yankees have a lot of money coming off the books following the 2020 season. These deals expire after 2020:
- Masahiro Tanaka: $22.143M luxury tax hit
- Jacoby Ellsbury: $21.857M luxury tax hit
- J.A. Happ: $17M luxury tax hit (if his 2020 option doesn’t vest)
- Zach Britton: $13M luxury tax hit (if his club and player options are declined)
- DJ LeMahieu: $12M luxury tax hit
Is it a coincidence the Yankees have limited themselves to short-term deals that (at least potentially) expire before the final season under the current CBA? Probably not. The roster can and will change a bunch over the next two seasons. We all know that. Right now, the Yankees are poised to shed significant payroll following the 2020 season, putting them in position to get under the $210M luxury tax threshold in 2021, and again reset their tax rate. I’m just saying, don’t be surprised if the “2021 luxury tax plan” becomes a thing we find ourselves talking about in the future.
9. Alright, so what’s the 40-man roster move? I thought it would be Ben Heller for Britton, and it turned out to be Hanser Alberto, who wasn’t needed as infield depth because the LeMahieu signing was in the works. I’m going to stick with Heller, Tim Locastro, and Kyle Higashioka as the players most at risk of losing their 40-man roster spots for LeMahieu. Higashioka is the third catcher and he has a minor league option remaining. I think he’s pretty safe. The LeMahieu signing means Locastro isn’t absolutely needed — the Yankees would still have Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada, and non-40-man roster player Gio Urshela, as infield depth — but the fact he can play pretty much anywhere makes him a good piece of depth. Plus the Yankees gave up an actual player (2015 third rounder Drew Finley) to acquire him. I think Locastro stays and Heller, who is still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, loses his 40-man spot. Keeping healthy players over injured players just makes sense. Just like I said last week with Britton, I expect it’ll be Heller to clear a spot for LeMahieu. Now prepare for it to be someone else entirely again.