MLB Rumors: The New York Yankees and free agent D.J. LeMahieu have agreed to a deal that will have the second baseman back with the Yankees for 2021 and beyond, per multiple reports. Jeff Passan is reporting that the deal is for 6 years and $90 million.
LeMahieu ending up with the Yankees is one of the most unsurprising things to happen this offseason — he had excelled since leaving Colorado for New York after the 2019 season, he wanted to stay with the Yankees, and the Yankees reportedly had re-signing LeMahieu as their top priority this offseason. While there were a few rumblings suggesting that the Toronto Blue Jays — who have seemingly had interest in every free agent this offseason — were in on LeMahieu, and Jon Heyman says they offered 4/$78M, there didn’t seem to ever be any other real serious suitor for him outside of the Yankees.
Six years for LeMahieu, who turns 33 in July, and who will be (scribbles on the back of a piece of paper) 38 when the deal is up, is more than I would have expected — second basemen, as a general rule, don’t tend to age well, and while LeMahieu has blossomed as a Yankee, putting up a .336/.386/.536 slash line in his two years with the club while finishing 3rd and 4th in the MVP balloting, I wouldn’t expect him to continue to be a quality contributor in his late 30s.
In fact, quick diversion time...doing a search on B-R, there are a total of 16 players since WWII who accumulated 22 seasons in all of at least 3.0 bWAR, while playing 75% or more of their games at second base, at age 35 or older.* Lowering the benchmark to 2.0 bWAR gets us to 23 players who accumulated 41 seasons of at least 2.0 bWAR, while playing 75% or more of their games at second base, at age 35 or older.**
* The names, in case you are curious, are Ben Zobrist, Chase Utley, Craig Biggio, Eddie Stanky, Frank White, Jeff Kent (X2), Joe Morgan (X3), Jose Valentin, Lou Whitaker (X2), Mark Ellis, Mark Grudzielanek (X3) (???...really, Mark Grudzielanek? three times?), Randy Velarde, Robinson Cano, Ryne Sandberg, Toby Harrah and Willie Randolph. 8 of the 16 are HOFers or Hall of Fame caliber players.
** The seven additional players are Bobby Grich, Davey Lopes, Ian Kinsler, Jim Gantner, Marco Scutaro, Solly Hemus and Tony Fernandez. The late, great Joe Morgan had 5 seasons of 2.0 bWAR or more at age 35 or older, including a 5.1 bWAR at age 38. Morgan also had a 5.7 bWAR season at age 21. And in case you are curious, only two other second basemen had 5+ bWAR seasons after WWII at age 35 or older — former Ranger Randy Velarde (7.0 in 1999) and former Ranger manager Eddie Stanky (5.6 bWAR in 1951). Stanky was a legitimately great player for a seven year period from 1945-51 — look him up if you aren’t familiar with him.
Anyway...there’s a good chance LeMahieu isn’t going to be playing second base in the last few years of his contract. He’s bounced around as a Yankee already, playing a lot of third base and first base along with second base, and part of his appeal would seem to be his versatility, and the fact that the Yankees can move him around depending on who else is in the lineup. He could be playing a corner spot the last couple of years of his deal, though his bat has less value if he’s at first base compared to second base.
That being said, it seems like the length of the deal may be about amortizing the total value LeMahieu is getting out over a longer period to lower the luxury tax impact. Kiley McDaniel predicted LeMahieu would get $88 million, but over 4 years. Fangraphs was much, much lower, pegging his expected deal at 3 years, $31 million. With the Jays coming in at $78 million over 4 years, McDaniel was obviously much closer.
The conventional wisdom is that you prefer higher AAV, lower year deals as a team, since it minimizes the long-term risk you take on, and you are paying more for the early seasons you expect to get most of your value from. But the Yankees matching the 4/$78M from the Jays means a $19.5M luxury tax number for the next four years — and for a team like the Yankees, who are generally always going to be at or above the luxury tax line, managing contracts in a way that takes that into account is important.
Thus, a six year, $90 million deal. LeMahieu gets a lower AAV than what the Jays offered, but gets more guaranteed money, and is still getting paid in his mid- to late-30s. The Yankees have LeMahieu under contract for longer than they’d probably like, but by doing the longer deal, they reduce the luxury tax number to $15 million per year, giving them more wiggle room in the short term. If LeMahieu pulls a Mark Grudzielanek and is still real good into his late 30s, the Yankees will be thrilled. If he’s not, well, they’ll pay a chunk of his salary down the road to move him elsewhere.