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Coles: Thinking about Replacements should LeMahieu Not Return

For many Yankees fans, a scenario where D.J LeMahieu is absent atop the Yankees lineup in 2021 is nightmare fuel. After all, LeMahieu has quietly (literally) been one of the Yankees’ best players the last two seasons. Not only that, but he’s been one of the MLB’s best players as well, finishing fifth in the AL MVP Race last season and winning a Silver Slugger Award in 2020.

The deal the Yankees signed DJ to is certainly part of his lore. The franchise inked him to a simple two-year, $24 million contract prior to the 2019 season. DJ was not even on the Opening Day roster in his first year, yet has morphed into one of the most beloved Yankees of the last ten years. After all, he’s been the WAR leader on the Yankees each of the past two seasons.

But the 2020 offseason presents many challenges when it comes to retaining LeMahieu. If he wants to stay a Yankee, that may make things easier. But we know he is not going to accept his $18.9 million Qualifying Offer, but that was unlikely from the jump. It was also something the Yankees did for draft pick compensation. We also know that the Yankees may not be as open to spending as they usually are. They lost the most money out of any team in the MLB this season.

I have historically been pessimistic on the prospects of LeMahieu being a Yankee in 2021, but if he wants to return I have to think he will make that happen. For the sake of this article though, let’s assume he’s indifferent. And if he is indeed indifferent, he’s likely going to get a lot of money. The Yankees, then, may have to move on to other options. But what would those options look like? Let’s take a look.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong had his $12.5 million option for the 2021 season declined by the St. Louis Cardinals as they make a move for more flexibility. In a normal season, this is likely a move the Cardinals don’t make, as we can tell by their tone.

John Mozeliak, the President of Baseball Operations for the Cardinals, said ““It’s just immediate flexibility, whereas, if we committed to it and then all of a sudden, we realized we were in a more difficult spot, then what are we left to try to do?” He added, “not having a ton of time to explore the trade market or know what that looks like, candidly, it was just the very conservative and safer play at the moment.”

He would add more about financial despair saying, “When you go from having 3.3, 3.4 million fans in your ballpark to zero, it’s a big hit.” I say all of this because it is obvious, then, that the Cardinals still value Kolten Wong but could not keep him from a financial perspective. And they value him because he is still a really good baseball player.

In the last 162-game season in 2019, Wong slashed .285/.361/.423 with 11 home runs, a .334 wOBA and a 111 wRC+. That’s a slightly above average bat, but where his real value lies is in his defense. And as we know, the Yankees could use some help up the middle defensively. For as long as he has been playing second base, Kolten Wong has been atop the leaderboards in Outs Above Average. Wong would also benefit greatly from the short porch at Yankee Stadium, as he bats from the left side and can pack a punch if he squares a ball up. Though he is not D.J LeMahieu, Wong could still be a really good addition at a cheaper price than LeMahieu may warrant.

Tyler O’Neill

This is a bit of a weird one, but for the sake of staying on topic with the Cardinals I think it can make sense. After all, the Yankees have had success making deals with St.Louis.

O’Neill isn’t DJ LeMahieu, but he could be a value add for the Yankees. O’Neill had a down 2020 season, slashing .173/.261/.360 with seven home runs and a .267 wOBA. However, for the sake of adding a player like O’Neill, I am not going to worry too much about his bat.

I view O’Neill, or a player like him, as a necessary add for the Yankees this offseason. As a team, the Yankees lack a player that can play practically any position on the baseball field. That includes both infield and outfield, something Tyler Wade can’t do. The Yankees also may be able to get him on a deal where they don’t have to give up very much, especially if the Cardinals are losing faith in O’Neil. O’Neil, however, did just win a gold glove.

Andrelton Simmons

This is a name that has emerged as a potential shortstop replacement for the Yankees amongst the general media. Andrelton would be my preferred addition in the offseason, should DJ go elsewhere. As we can see based on what we watched transpire for 60 games, it’s more likely than not that Gleyber Torres is not the answer as the Yankees’ everyday shortstop. Gleyber recorded -4 Outs Above Average this season at shortstop, good for 3rd to worst in the MLB.

Andrelton doesn’t have a great bat by any means. He does, though, put the ball in play and get on base at a respectable clip (.346 in 2020). But where Andrelton really shines is with his glove, and if the Yankees are going to replace LeMahieu, I actually don’t think it will be with a run of the mill second baseman. I think their plan would become one of trying to find a fill in at shortstop. In that case, Gleyber would move back to second base full time.

Jonathan Villar

This is not my favorite option, but it is one to consider. In 2020, the free agent infielder slashed .232/.301/.292 with just two home runs and a .262 wOBA. He is a fine defensive player that can bring a certain level of versatility to the Yankees. He stole 16 stolen bases in 2020, making it the fifth straight season in which he wiped double-digit bags. Villar also played well over 100 innings at both middle infield spots. So, for the right price we could see Villar land in Pinstripes.

Marcus Semien

This is a name that I feel as though I’m not hearing enough of when it comes to the Yankees. I think what actually makes him available to the Yankees is that he had such a down year, and will likely take a salary hit as a result. If we go back to 2019, Semien was a near MVP. He slashed .285/.369/.522 in 2019 with a .373 wOBA and a 137 wRC+. The defensive metrics don’t like him very much, and OAA wise he is not much better than Gleyber, but he at least has experience as an everyday shortstop. I think he would also fill the gap left by the absence of DJ’s bat fairly well. However, even after a down year, I don’t see the Yankees spending too much and I think Semien’s price tag might be too high.

Two Others to Think About

There are certainly some other names out there, such as Freddy Galvis, who could get a look in free agency by the Yankees. However, I think the Yankees would go with an Andrelton Simmons over a Galvis any day of the week. After all they are similar players, but Simmons has better swing decisions and a better glove.

Another player I like, though he is not a free agent, is Jon Berti. Berti is 31 years old with team control until 2026, but he plays for the Marlins. It’s hard for me to imagine that Berti is part of the long term plans for the fish, so perhaps the Yankees can manufacture a deal for a guy that can hit (114 wrc+ in 2020) and play any position on the field.

Final Thoughts

One of the Yankees’ biggest needs is defensive versatility, which is why I don’t think it is the end of the world if DJ does not return. If anything, DJ not returning opens doors for the Yankees to get creative on the market and add players that are good with the glove and can potentially play multiple positions both in the infield and outfield. Losing DJ would be tough for many Yankees fans to swallow, but it would be far from doomsday.

Also, LeMahieu leaving doesn’t just open up the door for defensive versatility. It also widens the Yankees pockets if they feel they want to add a few more players at a certain price tag. As we’ve seen the past couple of years, the Yankees are dealing with injuries. D.J LeMahieu is an amazing yet expensive player on the wrong side of 30. If he wants to stay, maybe he gives the Yankees a discount. Otherwise, I think the Yankees will spread the money around to add depth.

Written By

Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it! Please feel free to follow or send your thoughts/comments to me via twitter @rcoles0206. If you would like a specific player written up with our thoughts just send over a tweet!

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