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What number should go on LeMahieu’s blank check?

Free agency typically begins five days after the end of the World Series. That puts us in early November. While fans have many different ideas on how to shape the Yankees for the 2021 season, I think it’s pretty safe to say that everyone’s number one priority is resigning The Machine, DJ LeMahieu.

LeMahieu signed a two-year, $24 million deal on January 14, 2019. LeMahieu put up a 5.4 fWAR in 2019. Based on the work of Craig Edwards at FanGraphs (using the non-adjusted cost of a win in free agency), LeMahieu’s value was $36.72 million last season. By another estimate from FanGraphs, the Yankees spent approximately $4.9 million per 1.0 WAR from 2006-2017, which would put DJ at a worth of $26.46 million. Both of these figures are much higher than the $12 million he received.  

For 2020, let’s say that DJ would have played in the same number of games as he did in 2019 (145) had the season been 162 games long. Assuming linearity, that would have given him a WAR of 5.8, translating to a dollar value of $39.44 million or $28.42 million, respectively based on the two aforementioned methods. 

So it is safe to say that the Yankees got a steal. He has the 12th highest WAR in the entire sport since he joined the team. But now, he is (rightfully) going to be a hot commodity on the free-agent market. Not only can he hit, but he’s also a three-time Gold Glove winner. Add that to the fact that he is extremely consistent (the below chart is from the 2019 season) and he is just a quiet guy who goes about his business and you have the recipe for a great, low-maintenance pickup. 

The only thing going slightly against him is his age: DJ will turn 33 next July. With all of these factors in mind, how much is LeMahieu estimated to rake in this winter? While most players always end up going to the team offering the most money, some do not.

It was revealed last year that the Rays as well as other teams were offering LeMahieu a similar amount that the Yankees offered. A key distinct, however, was that those other teams wanted him to be their everyday second baseman, while the Yankees were planning on moving him around the infield. LeMahieu wanted to take up the challenge of being a Yankee and came to the Bronx. He also genuinely seems to like it here. Of course, we have heard that many times, but I don’t think his only priority is to max out on the dollars — he also wants to win. He had only played in five playoff games before coming to New York. If one team offers him $25 million a year and the Yankees offer him only $15 million, then he is sure to leave. But assuming the Yankees are in the same ballpark in terms of money, they can only be seen as the favorites. I mean, he’s still going to Yankee Stadium after the Yankees have been eliminated:

I already mentioned the FanGraphs figures based on WAR. However, it doesn’t seem likely to me that DJ will get $30 million annually. Spotrac calculated market values for players and they have DJ at $17,230,067. So is that roughly $17 million estimate accurate? No, it is not. The reason is that the Yankees are going to end up making the qualifying offer, which will be $18.9 million this year. Therefore, that would likely be the minimum annual salary he would get. 

Joel Sherman says we should expect the team to cut payroll due to the losses sustained due to COVID. He also believes the Yankees will try to not go above three years, $20 million per year. Another thought he threw out: “an easily triggered option year at a large dollar figure or with a large buyout that would keep down the value now, but potentially greatly expand it later in hopefully more flush times.”

Let’s not forget, LeMahieu’s value to the Yankees exceeds that of the dollar amount he will receive. Who do you want up in a big spot with runners on base in the postseason? DJ LeMahieu. The Yankees do not have another hitter like him. He had a strikeout rate of 9.7 percent in 2020 — second only to Tommy La Stella who had an absurd 5.3 percent strikeout rate. He ranks 32nd among all active players with a career 14.7 percent strikeout rate. Simply put, he puts the ball in play. He makes things happen. So would the Yankees be wise to “overpay” to retain his services? I don’t know what the exact financials look like due to COVID, but I would say yes.

While Hal Steinbrenner recently mentioned that the Yankees sustained more losses than any other team, every other team did also have losses. Thus, there might not be a huge bidding war this offseason that may have occurred had this been any other year. I think that DJ will get $20 million per year at minimum, with at least a term of three or four years. I, of course, do not know what DJ wants — maybe he wants the final contract of his career. That would be pretty lengthy. I would guess that he will get something for four or five years. With his type of game, he can stay productive going into his late-thirties and come out on the other side of his new deal in a position to get another good one. 

The Yankees also have some other holes to file, namely pitching (both starting and relief). Many Yankees fans insist on giving DJ a blank check, but how far are you willing to go with him if it means not being able to upgrade anywhere else? Both sides want to bring him back, but his value has never been higher.