The Yankees signed DJ LeMahieu to a six-year, $90 million contract extension after the 2020 season in part because they couldn’t imagine their lineup without him. After two years, the Bombers have gotten a pretty good idea of what life without LeMahieu is like in their most crucial moments.
Despite the fact that the Yankees made it to October in both seasons, the 34-year-old has yet to appear in a postseason game since signing his new contract. He missed the AL Wild Card game against the Boston Red Sox in 2021 due to a core injury, and he missed the entire 2022 ALCS run due to his toe — which still has questions, but it appears likely that he will avoid surgery.
After being decimated by the Houston Astros for the third time in six seasons, Brian Cashman and company are looking for ways to improve their lineup. However, long-term progress begins with LeMahieu reclaiming his 2019-20 form.
Between 2021 and 2022, the utility man slashed.265/.353/.368 in stark contrast to his.336/.386/.536 line from 2019 to 2020, which earned him the long-term contract. The three-time All-Star attempted to play through his previous two injuries, which took a significant toll on his statistics. Prior to his toe injury in 2022, he was arguably the best hitter in pinstripes not named Aaron Judge.
On Aug. 2, LeMahieu had a.292/.394/.431 slash line with 11 home runs in 95 games. He hit.167/.238/.211 in 30 games from August 3 to October 5, despite missing the majority of September. It’s not a coincidence that the Bombers were on top of the world in July, chasing the 1998 Yankees’ win record, and then fell apart in August, finishing 10-18.
Outside of batting average, the Yankees finished near the top of nearly every regular-season offensive category. They finished fourth in team OPS (.751), second in runs (807) and first in homers (254) with LeMahieu leading the way with the second-highest on-base percentage on the team. His.357 OBP would have ranked third among Yankees in the postseason, as the team slashed.173/.255/.324 in nine playoff games, good for the third-lowest OPS among all 12 teams.
[The Yankees’ bullpen should be excellent again in 2023]
With few options for offensive improvement in the trade and free agency markets, the Bombers must rely on what they have on hand. And LeMahieu, who turns 35 in July, is their best hope for changing the dynamic of their swing-and-miss lineup from October. With four years remaining on his contract at a $15 million AAV, Aaron Boone must find an everyday role for the veteran amidst their infield logjam, especially given his club’s lack of bat-to-ball skills and the lack of a true leadoff hitter.
LeMahieu led off in 89 of his 125 games last season; the only question now is where he is getting his playing time. Cashman has repeatedly stated that Josh Donaldson will be the Yankees’ starting third baseman this season, and with Gleyber Torres being one of the few likely productive bats — 115 WRC+ in 2022 — sitting him on the bench appears to be counterproductive for a team looking for offence.
The Yankees could use him in the infield again, as they did last season. The 34-year-old batted third for 385.2 innings, second for 312.2, and first for 265. Third base was his best defensive position in terms of defensive runs saved, with seven, the same amount Donaldson recorded in 902.2 innings as a potential gold glove candidate. Last season, LeMahieu’s versatility and performance on the field earned him his fourth gold glove award of his career.
However, rotating him means sitting players like Torres and Anthony Rizzo, which creates the issue of daily lineup inconsistency, which the Yankees faced last season with a nearly different lineup every night. In an ideal world, Oswaldo Cabrera would not be assigned to left field, and the 23-year-old would be utilising the youth that LeMahieu does not have to rotate around the field on any given night, taking over that role and allowing the veteran to settle into a more consistent spot.
Concerns about the veteran infielder’s ability to stay healthy down the stretch are understandable, especially as he approaches his 34th season. However, with four years remaining on his contract, the Yankees are left with no choice but to hope that the injury bug has grown tired of their utility man’s two-year stay. The suddenly pitching-dependent Bombers have few options for fixing their flailing offence, leaving them no choice but to rely on LeMahieu.