Last week’s agreement between Major League Baseball and the MLB Player’s Association outlined what the 2020 season could look like if happens at all. It opened up a huge range of outcomes, so I’m gaming out their potential impact on the Yankees. Yesterday, for example, I thought about what it might mean if games are all held at neutral sites and the Yankees get zero games in the Bronx. Today, I want to focus on another, long-term element: how it impacts DJ LeMahieu. He will be a free agent after the season, remember. Yes, I’m getting ahead of myself, but what else am I supposed to do right now?
The agreement includes some pretty substantial protections for the players. In the event that there’s no season, players on the 40-man roster will receive service time equivalent to what they earned in 2019. In other words, LeMahieu will be a free agent this winter no matter what happens. His case is fascinating to me and I’ve spent tons of time thinking about it already.
2019, A Career Year
As we all know, LeMahieu was an absolute force at the plate last year. As Derek noted in his season review, everyone – literally everyone – was wrong about him. In my decade plus on the Yankee internet, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the fanbase so collectively wrong. (That’s saying something!) Our guy hit .327/.375/.518 (136 wRC+) and blasted 26 home runs, almost double his previous career high of 15.
It was an impressive showing but also somewhat of an anomaly for the infielder. It was not just his most valuable season by a full win (5.4 fWAR to 4.4 in 2016, his previous career high), but he also hit the ball much harder and for considerably more power. I mean, who ever thought we’d see LeMahieu doing this?
There was some evidence that LeMahieu was undervalued and underperforming at the plate in Colorado – his batted ball profile was good in 2018, for example – but nobody expected this. He put up a bonafide MVP year and had all of the peripherals to support him. Of course, the weird ball last year injects some level of uncertainty to this success. How much uncertainty depends on who you ask. Still, though, there’s no question about the fact that his best year in terms of offensive production – and especially in terms of power – came in the year of the rocket ball. That’s bound to at least raise some eyebrows and skepticism, fair or not.
Ordinarily, LeMahieu would be looking for a strong rebound campaign to quiet those doubts and prove that his 2019 was not an anomaly. Now, he will either have considerably fewer games to prove that case, which inserts all kinds of small sample size noise, or may never get the chance at all. This is unfortunate for everyone but it hurts a guy like LeMahieu, who burst on the season in 2019, disproportionately.
The Offseason Landscape
The offseason, no matter what this season ends up looking like, is going to be weird as hell. That’s especially true for LeMahieu. There are three main things to consider, I think. Let’s get into all of those here.
New Budget Constraints
First things first: management is going to be feeling the squeeze after this season, no matter what happens. I know nobody feels bad for them, but we have to live in reality. COVID-19 is wrecking havoc on America’s economy. It’s only going to get worse the longer this goes on. There are fewer games, which means less revenue at the gate and from merchandise. People will also have less disposable income to spend on those items even if everything recovers in the most optimistic timeline. All of this will be true even as operating costs continue unabated.
As we all know, though, most MLB revenue comes from TV deals. I’d guess that this revenue is still coming through, but I’m not a contract lawyer nor do I moonlight as one. I really have no idea. After all, players aren’t getting their full salaries due to emergency clauses in the CBA, so who knows?
Now, it’s fair to assume that this matters less to the Yankees than other teams. They’re the wealthiest team in the sport, after all. They have the largest fanbase and, if the season returns, figure to be in the thick of all the postseason action. But they’re still going to service their Yankee Stadium debt to New York City, for example. The point is that there is a lot of financial uncertainty, even for the Yankees. Will this impact how much money the Yankees allocate to departing players like LeMahieu? It very well could. You could argue it shouldn’t, maybe, but let’s be real: it probably will. We’ve seen it happen in more certain times than this, after all.
With that financial uncertainty as a backdrop, the Yankees will have to evaluate LeMahieu through unusual lenses this winter. There are two realistic outcomes here:
- A Shortened Season: The league plays some number of games, whether it be whether 60, 80, or 120. This injects a ton of sample size noise into the equation, especially if LeMahieu got off to a cold start. A rough 20 games, which is really just 2-3 weeks, can really destroy a stat line in the less optimistic of these outcomes.
- No Season At All: This is by far the more complicated option. LeMahieu would enter free agency on the back of his best ever season, but without having played at all in over 12 months. Any lingering questions, fair or not, about the role of the ball or just a normal career year will go unaddressed.
Both of those scenarios introduce complications of their own, obviously. I suspect the former is easier to handle. There is still the benefit of past seasons for evaluations as well as internal workouts, etc. That hurts a guy like LeMahieu, though, who changed the entire conversation around his career in 2019. He wants less focus on pre-2019. Ordinarily, he’d get the chance to further distance himself from sub-par seasons. Not so anymore.
Say he struggles in 2020 but it’s only 60 games. This being a business, you’d have to imagine the Yankees using that against him in any 2021 contract negotiations even if they know it’s unfair. This is less of a concern if he hits the cover off the ball again, but that puts a lot of pressure on him to not slump at all. It’s weird.
As for the second option, well, it’s even weirder. I really don’t know how teams would handle this, especially for older players like LeMahieu. (Remember, he’ll turn 33 in the middle of the 2021 season.) There are just so many factors to consider. The best parallel, I guess, is a player getting hurt and missing a season before free agency, but that’s not right either. That often results in a pillow contract – think Dellin Betances – and that feels like something that wouldn’t happen to LeMahieu, obviously. He’s due for a raise. The question is just how big of a raise, and determining that will be the hard part.
So, What Do You Do?
Right now, I think the Yankees would absolutely offer him the qualifying offer. That should still be the average of the league’s top 125 salaries – around $18 million or so – which is a 50% raise for LeMahieu. He might just accept that, even though it’s just for one year, but I doubt it. The argument would serve as a pillow contract while also providing a raise. It would give him a chance to go earn a bigger contract one year later. On the other hand, he’d be 33-turning-34 at the time, so who knows.
The other thing to consider, though, is the new importance of draft picks. If the league shortens the draft to just 5 rounds, picks are much more valuable. In other words, offering a QO and attaching a draft pick to a player makes the cost of signing that player a bit higher. Normally, I’d scoff at that. A good team should never let a comp pick stop them from signing a good player like LeMahieu…but there’s much more uncertainty now. It could be a deterrent, especially if other teams are further constricting their budget due to the economic climate.
We also have to consider that teams may be less willing to spend big on the free agent market due to this climate, too. That may reduce LeMahieu’s market power, too, and drive him right back into the Yankees’ arms. LeMahieu, as good as he was in 2019, isn’t like Anthony Rendon or even Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. He has many more question marks already, let alone the broader question marks facing the league. It’s unfortunate for him.
All in all, though, this gets a big shrug from me right now. I really have no idea. There’s so much that could happen between now and then. I mean, maybe he comes out and is extremely productive again if and when games start. That’s the ideal situation for everyone, obviously. The good news is that all of this uncertainty may just make a reunion between the Yankees and 2019’s most dependable player even more likely.