In celebration of the Yankees resigning DJ LeMahieu to an incredibly team-friendly six year, $90 million contract, I wanted to take a look at some other contracts that turned out to be incredibly valuable.
LeMahieu has yet to play a game on his new deal but it’s hard to see $15 million a year going to a player like DJ LeMahieu being a bust relative to what salaries are for stars of his caliber. The criteria for including a player in this post were pretty simple. The player had to have been signed as a free agent. The player had to have been signed to a multi-year deal. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the most valuable contracts the Yankees produced of the last couple of decades.
Signed a six year, $88.5 million deal
Value: $3.12 million per WAR
Mike Mussina’s free agent contract from 20 years ago really into perspective how valuable LeMahieu’s contract will be moving forward. Mussina left the Baltimore Orioles in free agency to join a Yankees team that was coming off their third straight World Series title and 26th overall. Mussina was the fourth best available player by WAR that offseason behind Alex Rodriguez, Mike Hampton, and Manny Ramirez. His numbers in 2000 were watered down by the fact that the Orioles were terrible, finishing fourth in the AL East. He finished the 2000 season with 11 wins against 15 loses but threw 237.2 innings with an ERA of 3.79. Mussina had developed a track record of dependency by throwing at least 200 innings each year between 1995 and 2000. When he got to New York he did much of the same.
He continued the trend of a workhorse for his first three seasons in New York, passing the 200 inning mark each time while providing decent run prevention. He fell off a bit in the fourth and fifth year of his deal, falling below the 200 inning mark and pitching to an ERA around 4.50. However, in the final year of his deal he would bounce back with 197.1 innings pitched and ERA of 3.51. After the 2006 season, the Yankees and Mike Mussina would agree to a second contract worth $23 million over two seasons. With that contract he would finish out his career in pinstripes, sadly one season before the Yankees would win their 27th and most recent World Series championship. Despite not reaching the pinnacle of baseball in winning a World Series, Mussina would eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame in January of 2019.
Signed a three year, $21 million deal
Value: $3.68 million per WAR
It’s hard to predict what Japanese born players are going to do once they make the move to the MLB. The best example has to be Ichiro who won the AL Rookie of Year and AL MVP in 2001 after coming stateside. Two years later, another player would make the move and again show that talent is talent no matter where it comes from. Hideki Matsui decided to make the move at the age of 28, signing a three year deal with the Yankees for $21 million. The player who become known to Yankee’s fans as “Godzilla” did not disappoint on his first MLB contract.
2003 was a good year for Matsui. His OPS was above league average for sure but .788 was nothing outlandish. He would end up finishing as the runner up in the rookie of the year voting behind Angel Berroa, who would actually end up playing for the Yankees in 2009. 2004 would be Matsui’s coming out party as a superstar. Matsui showed that he could play every day during his rookie campaign and would do the same during his sophomore season except this time with a dramatic improvement in production. He increased his batting average (from .287 to .298), his power (from 16 homeruns to 31 homeruns and from a .435 slugging to a .522 slugging), and reached the century mark in RBIs and runs scored. He made the All-Star team that year and even garnered some MVP votes. 2005 would be a step back for Matsui in terms of power, hitting only 23 homeruns a year after surpassing the 30 homeruns, but he slightly improved his batting average and again put up totals of 100 RBIs and 100 runs scored. After his first Yankees contract was up, Matsui would resign for $52 million over four years which gave him the opportunity to win his one and only championship ring. After departing the Yankees following the 2009 season, Matsui’s career sort of went out with a whimper. He played three more seasons, one each with the Angels, Athletics, and Rays, before retiring at the end of the 2012 season. He may not have finished his career in pinstripes but Hideki Matsui will always hold a special place in the hearts of Yankees fans.
Signed a four year, $52 million deal
Value: $3.9 million per WAR
Another member of the 2009 World Series champions, Johnny Damon might surprise some people to be on this list. I can still remember the hysteria when Damon signed with the Yankees less than a year after stating he could never see himself playing in the Big Apple. The Red Sox refused to offer anything more a three year deal to stay in Boston even though Damon’s agent, Scott Boras, had stated that Damon was looking for a five year deal. Enter Brian Cashman who was in the market for a new centerfielder. Damon and the Yankees split the difference by signing a four year deal worth $52 million. Damon ended 2006 with 24 homeruns, 25 steals, and 115 runs scored and finished 15th in MVP voting. After being brought in to be the new leadoff hitter, it was surprising to see Damon set a new career high in homeruns. 2007 would be a disappointing step back for Damon as he regressed back to 12 homeruns and slugged under .400 since his only season in Oakland. He still provided solid on base skills and stolen base ability but all told he still only produced an OPS+ of 96. The next two years were much better for Damon. The final two years of Damon’s contract went like this:
Damon spent most of 2008 hitting in the leadoff spot again but in 2009 the team made the call the flip Damon and Jeter in the batting order. Damon hitting in the two spot was a great move for the team and him personally. He put up his best offensive season as a Yankee in 2009 with an .854 OPS and matching his career high in homeruns. Just like Matsui, Damon would depart the Yankees after 2009 and bounce around the league. He would have stops in Detroit, Tampa Bay and Cleveland before being unofficially retired from the league at the end of 2012. Damon was a loveable player for sure and we will always have this at-bat against Brad Lidge in the 2009 World Series.
Signed a four year, $36 million deal
Value: $3.76 million per WAR
After missing the playoffs for the second straight year, the Yankees seemed lost. After 2013, the greatest closer of all-time decided to call it quits and fortunately the Yankees had a great replacement for Mariano Rivera in David Robertson. Unfortunately, Robertson was slated to become a free agent after the 2014 season. The Yankees were also still in the days of trying to save every last penny in order to get under the luxury tax while still competing for a championship. I believe this is what led to the Yankees deciding to sign Andrew Miller instead of David Robertson. They only saved about $2.5 million a year on the deal but every little bit counts. Miller appearing on this list is a bit of an outlier because he didn’t finish out his deal with the Yankees. In the middle of the 2016 season the Yankees traded him to the Cleveland Indians in the deal that brought over Clint Frazier. Doing a little bit of math and we see that he was still worth $3.76 million per WAR he provided to the Yankees. Here are his stats while he was in pinstripes:
The man was a monster in the back of the bullpen and even after the Yankees swung a trade for Aroldis Chapman in December of 2015, an argument could be made that Miller was the most important piece in the bullpen. In no way do I think the Yankees regret the trade of Andrew Miller and there were opportunities for them to really regret it. Instead Greg Bird did this. For the season and a half Andrew Miller did pitch for the Yankees he was always lights out.
Signed a two year, $24 million deal
Value: $2.1 million per WAR
Of course I’m going to include LeMahieu on this list. At the time, the two year deal he signed with New York was met with mixed reviews. He had become known for his defense to that point and in 2018 had just set a career high in homeruns but his .276/.321/.428 slash line while playing in Colorado left something to be desired. The Yankees signed DJ as a utility player to fill in until Didi Gregorius was ready to come back. Little did they know injuries would force LeMahieu into an everyday role in 2019 and he did more than just “fill in”. Here are LeMahieu’s stats during his first contract with the Yankees:
As you all know, that is a superstar stat line. There’s no way I believe that Brian Cashman envisioned LeMahieu becoming the player he is today. Still, the fact that Cashman was able to lock up DJ for six years while only paying him an extra $3 million a year is nothing short of spectacular. Here’s to hoping that this next contract turns out like the first one and the rest of the contracts mentioned in this post.