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Finding a DJ LeMahieu replacement

The Yankees enter the offseason once again with a clear goal.  Last year it was sign Gerrit Cole and they accomplished that goal with the largest contract for a free agent pitcher to date. This year it will be re-signing free agent second baseman DJ LeMahieu. 

Coming off his second MVP level season where he hit .364/.421/.590 and won a batting title, LeMahieu will be hitting market as the top free agent hitter. It’s no secret that the Yankees want to keep LeMahieu but there are a number of factors in play.

For one, he is going to have multiple suitors with a weak second baseman free agent class.  Secondly, he will most likely require a four or five-year deal, and when the 2021 season starts he will be 32 years old.

Despite LeMahieu excelling the last two years, he could regress substantially over a long-term deal or just fall right off a cliff in 2021. Should the Yankees lose LeMahieu to free agency, they will need to replace him with someone outside the organization, with the only option currently within organization being Tyler Wade, who failed to impress in 2020.

Let’s take a look at a few interesting replacement options.

Cesar Hernandez

2020 was one of the best seasons for the 30-year-old second baseman in his first year with the Cleveland Indians. He led the American League in doubles and finished the year hitting .283/.355/.408.

Prior to 2020, Hernandez had spent his entire career with the Philadelphia Phillies and was basically a league average hitter that played average defense. Throughout his career, the switch-hitter has been a really solid offensive player holding a career batting average of .277. Early in his career he was almost a .300 hitter, hitting .294 as recently as 2016 and 2017. His batting average hasn’t been that good over the last three seasons, however, with his last three batting averages being .253, .279, and .283 in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively.

Hitting .283 is still pretty good though, especially when you factor in his ability to get on base.  Despite falling off from seasons where he walked at rates above 10% from 2016 to 2018, he still managed to walk at a respectable 9.2% in 2020. If he were to be signed for the 2021 season, he would most likely hit lower in the order and represent a solid on base threat for when the lineup turns over. There is a reason he would hit lower in the order though, that reason is an absence of power. Despite leading the AL in doubles, he only managed three home runs in 2020. This was surprising because he hit 15 home runs in 2018 and followed that up with 14 home runs in 2019, marking the first time he passed the 10 home run mark in a season.

His power looked to be trending up but then it cratered this past season. Part of that could be due to going from the 5th ranked park for home runs, Citizens Bank Park, to the 19th ranked park in Progressive Field. In 2020, Yankee Stadium was ranked 2nd in terms of long balls behind Great American Ballpark (Cincinnati Reds).  Moving from Progressive Field to Yankee Stadium could turn some of those doubles into big flys.  It also doesn’t hurt that he hits from both sides of the plate.

Marcus Semien

Man it really sucks for Marcus Semien that he couldn’t hit the market last year.  To say that 2019 was a career year for Semien would be a severe understatement. He finished the year hitting .285/.369/.522 setting career highs in every offensive category except stolen bases and finishing 3rd in MVP voting. He also continued to provide superb defense that he has become known for since coming to Oakland in a trade from the White Sox in 2015. If he would have been a free agent last year, he would have pulled in a major deal for sure.

Alas, he wasn’t a free agent after 2019. Instead, he will hit the market after slumping hard in 2020 hitting .223/.305/.374. His defense also took a step back this past season when he posted a dWAR of -0.2 after putting up a dWAR of 2.2 in 2019. It looks like he will have to settle for a deal a fraction of what he would have gotten last offseason and that might be something the Yankees can entertain.

It’s not out of the question he returns to his 2019 form in 2021. Even if you average out his 2018 numbers with his 2019 numbers you get a player that hit .270/.345/.456 with 24 home runs. Add that to his stellar defense at shortstop, and you have a very valuable two-way player.

The caveat with Semien is that he is a shortstop, which means unless they want to sign him to second base, Gleyber Torres will need to move back to second base. Despite Cashman coming out recently and stating that Torres was the shortstop for the foreseeable future, I could see the team signing Semien to play shortstop on a three-year deal and just accepting that Torres will play out his age 24 to 26 seasons at second base.

If it means improving the team over the next several seasons, it’s a move you have to at least discuss.

Tommy La Stella

Tommy La Stella represents an interesting case of free agency. He has only been everyday player since 2018 and has been bouncing around the league the last few years. Originally debuting with the Braves in 2014, he has since spent time with the Cubs, Angels, and Athletics.

La Stella is capable of playing both second and third base and has shown an above-average offensive profile. Since becoming a regular in 2018, his triple slash has been .283/.352/.435 and his last two seasons have been even better than that. Last season he hit .281/.370/.449 and despite an injury shortened 2019, he hit .295/.346/.486. 

Let’s take his 2019 season, in which he only played 80 games, and extrapolate that out over 162 games. He would have hit 32 home runs with 88 RBIs and 98 runs. Let’s also throw in his DJ LeMahieu-like 5.3% strikeout rate and really good 11.8% walk rate. La Stella could be a low strikeout, high walk hitter with above average power and batting average. His power could tick up playing in Yankee Stadium as well since he’s a left-handed hitter. His defense has been average at best throughout his career but at least he won’t kill you in the field.

Obviously the Yankees need to re-sign DJ. He’s still the best among the players mentioned above and the Yankees would be much worse without him at the top of the order. If he leaves, there are some options out there to replace him though. Let’s hope they re-sign him and then possibly pick up one of these guys to play a part-time role on the next Yankees championship team.