Much of Yankees’ fan base was furious when the team passed on free agents Manny Machado and Bryce Harper this past winter. But one player they did sign is currently a top-5 AL MVP candidate.
LeMahieu aka DJLM NYY MVP
Many Yankees’ fans spent a good portion of the offseason scratching their heads over the team’s signing (two years, $24M) of free agent second baseman DJ LeMahieu. Where would he play? Even with starting shortstop Didi Gregorius (Tommy John Surgery) expected to be sidelined for at least the first three months of the season, the Yankees still had a crowded infield. Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar, Luke Voit, and Greg Bird were the incumbents. The team also entered camp with Gio Urshela, Tyler Wade, and another surprise signee, Troy Tulowitzki.
LeMahieu’s signing turned out to be a blessing. With Andujar gone for the season in early May, LeMahieu’s value skyrocketed even further. Even with the recent acquisition of Edwin Encarnacion and the earlier than expected return of Gregorius, manager Aaron Boone keeps the league’s leading RISP hitter in the everyday lineup. He has no choice.
DJLM played his first eight seasons with the Rockies in hitter-friendly Coors Field. Despite that, LeMahieu posted a .760 career OPS. In fact, the only time LeMahieu topped an .800 OPS was in 2016 when he hit a career-high (and NL-leading) .349 and compiled a .901 OPS.
After slashing .276/.321/.428 in his final season in Colorado, LeMahieu headed to the UK with an AL-leading .336 batting average and a .522 slugging percentage (SLG). His .906 OPS far exceeded both Machado’s (.858) and Harper’s (.827) numbers.
He’s the perfect addition to a lineup filled with guys concerned about launch angles and home runs. LeMahieu has destroyed left-handed pitching to the tune of a .400 average for balls put into play (BAbip) and a .938 OPS.
To top it off, with five home runs in the last two weeks, “The Machine” has also been on a power tear. His 12 home runs are already only three behind the career-best 15 he hit last season. He’s also driven in 54 runs, scored 58 runs, and topped 100 hits in just 74 games.
The three-time Gold Glove winner, along with third baseman Gio Urshela, also steadied the Yankees’ shaky infield defense.
Oh, and he’s stolen four bases in as many attempts.
Simply put, LeMahieu was the Yankees’ first-half MVP and arguably the AL’s first-half MVP. And, quite possibly the best signing of the 2018-2019 Hot Stove.
And, don’t be surprised if one of Britain’s royal couples names their next kid after him.
So what about those other two guys?
The Machado-Harper Waiting Game
Machado and Harper, of course, were the two biggest names on the free agent market. Everyone expected a giant bidding war, but the 2017 slow-to-sign offseason proved to be no fluke. The Yankees quickly took themselves out of the running for Harper and though they met with Machado, the team never made a formal offer.
The Phillies were early favorites to sign Harper and reportedly wanted to sign both he and Machado.
They eventually did get their man, signing the former Washington National to a 13-year, $330M (no opt-out) contract at the end of February.
Machado meanwhile, was rumored to want to join his brother-in-law, Yonder Alonso, with the Chicago White Sox. But, the San Diego Padres made a big push, inking the former Baltimore Oriole to a 10-year, $330M deal, one week earlier than Harper joined Philly.
To date, the reviews have been mixed. Phillies fans quickly got down on Harper, who sported a .222/.363/.430 slash line midway through May. He then went on a 13-game tear in which he hit .327/.368/.635 with three home runs, seven doubles, and 14 RBI.
Unfortunately for the Phillies, Harper sunk back to a .228/.343/.368 split for the first 16 games in June. As of this writing, Harper’s put up a .246/.363/.465 split with 14 HR, 55 RBI, and 46 runs scored. He leads the NL strikeouts (98), compared to 53 walks.
Despite Harper’s underwhelming season, the Phillies (43-38) stand 4.5 games behind first-place Atlanta in the NL East and in a tie for the top wild card spot.
It took a blazing hot two weeks for Machado’s numbers to get where they are today: .280/.358/.500. Prior to that, Machado sported a pedestrian .816 OPS (Harper’s stood at .814 at the time). He enters play on Friday with 17 HR, 49 RBI, and 48 runs scored. His strikeouts (69) are more than double his walks (34).
With nearly a halfway split between Machado’s defensive appearances at shortstop and third base, he’s been like two different players. It feels that way when he’s hitting at home and on the road.
In the Padres’ Petco Park, Machado has hit an anemic .236/.309/.385 (.694 OPS). On the road, he’s been a terror to the tune of .324/.406/.615 (.1021 OPS).
The moral of this story is that while big-time free agents are great (and the high-priced duo will be fine down the road), I’ll take LeMahieu over any of the other free agent hitters from this past offseason.