The Yankees had a wrench thrown into its roster plans for 2019 when Didi Gregorius underwent Tommy John surgery in October. The decisions made to fill the gap remain puzzling (at least for me), including the signing of infielder DJ LeMahieu.
It is not that LeMahieu is a bad player by any means. The 30-year-old is a former batting champion (he hit .348 in 2016 for the Rockies) and one of the best defenders in the game at second base (three Gold Glove awards, including two straight honors). The perplexing aspect of his signing is that he's filling a utility role -- at a hefty price of two years, $24 million -- which won't maximize his potential production as a second baseman.
Typically, super-utility type players are on the field at least five days per week. How will the Yanks accomplish this with LeMahieu and how might it affect the rest of the players?
The Yankees have handed the shortstop role to LeMahieu's former teammate Troy Tulowitzki until Gregorius returns. In order to provide LeMahieu the necessary work to keep him in the mix, they will seemingly remove second baseman Gleyber Torres and third baseman Miguel Andujar from the lineup on occasion to provide the veteran at-bats.
There is also a good chance the Yanks will rest Tulowitzki every so often to try to keep him on the field. That would likely necessitate shifting Torres to shortstop, though LeMahieu has suggested he could play shortstop if needed. Finally, the Yankees have indicated LeMahieu could see some time at first base, where the Yankees have Luke Voit and Greg Bird vying for the starting role.
Resting Andujar and Torres to create an avenue for playing time to LeMahieu seems shortsighted, especially from an offensive perspective. Further, as I wrote recently, shifting Torres back and forth to shortstop to either relieve Tulowitzki on occasion or in the event the latter is injured might be detrimental to his development at second base, a position he is far from mastering. Lastly, it would seem more plausible for LeMahieu to receive reps at first base if Bird (a lefty hitter) wins the spring training battle, and that might be a long shot.
From the outside, it appears the Yankees signed LeMahieu more as an expensive backup option for a multitude of potential roster issues than they did with a concise plan that creates the best value for his services. At present, LeMahieu's value can only be maximized if Andujar is terrible in the field, or if Tulowitzki gets hurt, or if neither Voit nor Bird impress during spring training. As a sporadically used player, LeMahieu's cost looks to be exorbitant.
Backup plans are important, however the players signed to handle such roles are not typically paid as a starter. This leads to the another potential issue for LeMahieu and the Yankees. What if there are not enough reps because Tulowitzki is healthy, Andujar is solid at third base, Torres continues his ascent and whoever mans first baseman is preforming well?
We have seen time and again how difficult it can be for perennial starters to shift to an inconsistent bench role. Last season, the Yankees employed Neil Walker in a similar situation, and it took a lengthy period of consistent playing time for him to resemble the player he had been in the past as a starter. LeMahieu has five years under his belt as an everyday player, so the transition to scattered playing time and at several positions could affect him as well.
The Yankees clearly needed to address the vacancy at shortstop and ready for potential issues in the infield, but the means to which they did -- the tandem signings of Tulowitzki and LeMahieu -- appear to have holes, when a true bench utility infielder might have sufficed. Instead of providing clear answers or a succinct plan that puts the entirety of the infield in the role best suited to the individual player's strengths, they've taken the wait-and-see approach.