Well, folks, as we all predicted, we’re off to a (clears throat) roaring start to the MLB offseason. Can you feel the heat from those Drew Smyly and Marcus Stroman signings? What about JA Happ going to the Angels? No? Well, I can’t say I blame you. Anyway…
Like most of the league, the Yankees have done more or less nothing in the offseason so far, aside from setting their 40-man roster. Lately, there’s been some smoke about one of the teams’ key free agents: DJ LeMahieu.
With Robinson Cano testing positive for PEDs again, he and his $24M are off the books for the Mets, opening a spot at second base. Naturally, there’s speculation that the Mets, with new owner Steve Cohen’s deep pockets, will make a run at DJLM. Their NL East rivals the Nationals have also been linked to the third-place MVP finisher. Pair this with the similar smoke generated by trade talks around Francisco Lindor and we may want to think about life after DJ LeMahieu, just in case the Yankees don’t bring him back in.
Here, we’ve already alluded to this possibility in our offseason plan . If we’re dealing with a no-DJLM-in-2021 situation, Plan A is to trade for Francisco Lindor. First and most importantly, he is better than any other player that we know is available, whether by trade or on the free agent market. Acquiring Lindor would also allow the team to move Gleyber Torres back to second base, where he seems much more proficient defensively. And given Lindor’s relative youth and Torres’ actual youth–and provided the Yankees and Lindor work out an extension at some point–this would set the Yankees middle infield up for a long time. The potential downside is the cost of acquiring Lindor. While it’s not likely that Cleveland will get a big haul for him, giving up just money is usually preferable to giving up players and then money. Lindor could also want to test free agency after 2021, but given the stellar SS FA class that year, I’m not too concerned there. If the Yankees do part ways with LeMahieu, Lindor ought to be their priority for replacing him.
Another plan would be a direct replacement route: signing another second baseman to take LeMahieu’s spot on the roster. Having looked over the list of free agent second basemen, four have caught my eye: Kolten Wong, Tommy LaStella, Brock Holt, and Cesar Hernandez. The pro side here is that any of the options we consider here are likely to be considerably cheaper than LeMahieu would be, leaving money around to sign pitching. Of course, the big con is that none of these players are likely to be as good as DJ LeMahieu, who’s proven himself excellent in his two years in the Bronx. Additionally, this option forces the Yankees to leave Gleyber Torres at short, which may be a risk proposition, given his defense there last year.
Wong, who had a down year in 2020 and underperformed at the plate, still has pluses in his game. He’s a lefty batter, which means he could provide the balance the Yankees seem to need so desperately. He’s also a bit of a different type of hitter than the typical Yankee. He draws his fair share of walks, sure, but he doesn’t hit for much power; on the flip side of that, however, he doesn’t strike out much, either, and the Yankees could probably use some of that, too (even if I think their strikeout issues are overblown). Wong also has a solid glove at second, which would be necessary after losing LeMahieu’s sure hands (and to make up for Torres’ rocky performance at SS).
Next, there’s Tommy LaStella, whose last two years have been stellar (even if it’s just 135 games total). He’s broken out at the plate in a big way and offers a similar offensive profile to that of Wong; he’s also a lefty batter to boot. And while his defense doesn’t rate out as highly as the (former?) Cardinal’s, he is capable of playing at each IF position aside from shortstop.
Like Wong, Brock Holt had a (very) down year in 2020. I’ve previously advocated for signing him as a depth piece, but perhaps he could handle a starting role–at least in a platoon situation. Like Holt and LaStella, he bats lefty. His strikeout numbers are a touch high for someone with as little power as he has, but he makes up for it with walks. Additionally, he can play quite literally all over the field, which gives him extra value.
Last, there’s Cesar Hernandez. He’s purely a second baseman at this point and plays good defense. He hits for virtually now power, but walks enough and is a switch hitter. He’s not as big a name as Wong, hasn’t broken out like LaStella, an isn’t as versatile as Holt, but good defense and switch hitting is enough to earn him at least some consideration.
If I’m ranking these options, I probably go Wong first by a decent amount, followed by Hernandez, then LaStella, then Holt. I say Hernandez over LaStella more so because of cost. The last two years are likely to net LaStella a fairly big contract that he might not live up to, given that they’re so out of line with where he’s been.
The other option–aside form ‘do nothing,’ which is obviously unacceptable–is to replace LeMahieu’s roster spot with a free agent shortstop. Like trading for Lindor would, this has the plus of moving Torres back to second and is likely more cost effective than re-signing LeMahieu. But, like with the second baseman option, there’s also a decent chance none of these players perform as well as LeMahieu woud. Regardless, of the crop, there are three who stand out: Didi Gregorius, Marcus Semien, and Andrelton Simmons.
We know all about Didi and so do the Yankees. Perhaps that familiarity is attractive, but given that Didi and the Yankees weren’t even in the same book, let alone on the same page, a year ago when he hit free agency, maybe that doesn’t matter so much. Still, there might be a need there and Didi, now much farther removed from Tommy John Surgery, had a bounceback year and offers lefty balance, pop, and good defense. All three of those things fit a need for the Yankees in some way.
Marcus Semien is a touch baffling when it comes to defense. His reputation is as a butcher in the field and Statcast backs that up. However, UZR and DRS absolutely adore him, especially the last two years. A right handed hitter, he offers some power, some walks, and some strikeouts. If the defensive improvement that UZR and DRS show is real, he’s a very attractive piece. If the Yankees deem that isn’t for real, he’s likely not a fit.
Simmons is someone the Yankees have wanted before, since his time with Atlanta. Remember what wild proposed trade that involved him, Heyward, Luis Severino, and Aaron Judge? He’s now a free agent and could fill a need for the Yankees. The numbers indicate he wasn’t his elite fielding self in 2020, but he was still solid. Despite being right handed, thus not offering the lineup balance the Yankees might seek, he’s a high-contact, low-strikeout hitter that could do well at the bottom of the lineup with players on base ahead of him.
Didi would be my favorite here, regardless of my affinity for him in the first place. He’s lefty and offers the best balance of upside and predictability on both sides of the ball.
To wrap this all up with another ranking, my first choice would be trading for Lindor. My second choice would be just re-signing LeMahieu. Number three would be Didi and a close number four would be Wong. Though there would be a pretty big step down from 1 + 2 to 3 + 4 here, the backup options aren’t all that bad. Not bringing back LaMahieu is something that might ring alarm bells for a lot of Yankee fans–myself included–but if they respond with any of these options, it wouldn’t be terrible.