Yankees need to be careful with D.J. LeMahieu’s next contract

The Yankees signed D.J. LeMahieu to a bargain contract in 2018. The organization won’t be so lucky when it comes to his next deal.

D.J. LeMahieu didn’t make a ton of headlines when he first signed with the Yankees, but he quickly turned into one of Aaron Boone’s most important players. That makes it imperative for Brian Cashman to sign his second baseman to a new contract before he fits free agency at the conclusion of the 2020 season.

That doesn’t mean the Yankees can afford to break the bank to bring the steady infielder back into the fold. The front office needs to be very careful with LeMahieu’s next deal when it comes to both dollars and years.

His $12 million annual salary makes him the fifth highest-paid second baseman in MLB. LeMahieu clearly outperformed that slot during his 2019 campaign. Only Ketel Marte provided more WAR at the position. LeMahieu finished the campaign by giving the Yankees six total wins above replacement.

Some critics might point out that LeMahieu played a number of his games at other positions. That has nothing to do with his inability to handle the defensive workload at second. The only reason LeMahieu played so many games at other positions in 2019 is that the Yankees needed to move him around to maximize their ability to win games.

It is, however, fair to wonder how he’s going to hold up defensively at second base over the life of his next contract. LeMahieu will be playing his age-32 season in 2021. That makes it very likely that both his defensive range and his bat speed are going to decline soon after he inks his next deal.

The question the Yankees need to answer is just how quickly that decline is going to arrive. LeMahieu isn’t a player that relies on a ton of natural athleticism to succeed. Much of his game is based on a really high level of skill. On defense, that means that he gobbles up every play his legs allow him to get to. Offensively, it means LeMahieu’s exceptional hand-eye coordination allows him to spray hits all over the diamond.

LeMahieu’s decline should be long and protracted. He’s not the sort of player who will suddenly fall off a cliff. That makes him a prime target for the Yankees to re-sign as long as his demands aren’t exorbitant.

Expecting LeMahieu to agree to another two-year contract in free agency is not a reasonable plan for the Yankees front office. He’s proven his ability to thrive in pinstripes and will be looking for long-term financial security. LeMahieu understands this is probably his last chance to really cash in with a lucrative contract.

The Yankees should draw a hard-line at only giving LeMahieu a four-year deal. That would take him to his age-36 season where it’s very likely his skills will erode to the point that he’s no longer an above-average starter. The team will get the majority of its value during the first two years of the contract. New York must accept that LeMahieu will likely be overpaid during the back half of the deal.

Fortunately for the team’s front office, LeMahieu’s current salary gives them a solid place to start in terms of negotiations. The Yankees aren’t going to get away with paying him $12 million annually again, but that figure should be used as the starting point in their salary discussions.

In the end, going as high as $15 or $16 million per season should be an acceptable outcome for all parties. As a point of reference, that deal would make LeMahieu the third highest-paid second baseman in the game. He probably won’t play up to that level of compensation over the life of the deal, but the Yankees are a franchise that can afford to overpay for the kind of production certainty a player like LeMahieu provides.

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In the end, a four-year, $64 million contract should be enough to keep LeMahieu in pinstripes during the remainder of his prime. Anything more should cause the Yankees to rethink his status as a big part of their future plans. Anything less should prompt LeMahieu to find new representation.

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