Earlier this week bad weather denied us a chance to see DJ LeMahieu play a position other than second base for the first time since 2014. He was slated to play third base in Tuesday’s rained out game. The Yankees signed LeMahieu, a career second baseman, with the intention of turning him into a super utility infielder. “I was told to bring a lot of gloves,” he joked during his introductory conference call.
The 30-year-old LeMahieu is a three-time Gold Glover who leads all second basemen with +29 DRS the last three seasons. Signing him and putting him at second full-time with Gleyber Torres sliding over to shortstop would’ve been the easiest and most straightforward move, but the Yankees will instead move LeMahieu around. They believe his defensive tools will translate elsewhere on the diamond and LeMahieu’s onboard with the plan.
“I see they’ve got a lot of talented infielders there and we’ll kind of see how it unfolds. I’ll be ready to go wherever I’m needed,” LeMahieu said to Dan Martin last month. “I’d be comfortable (at short). I played quite a bit of third in the minors, actually, primarily third in the minors and also some short. It’s something I’d have to work on, but I definitely think I could handle it here and there.”
My guess is LeMahieu will be fine at third. His quickness, hands, and arm are all very good and should translate well to the hot corner. I’m sure he’ll have no trouble catching throws from other infielders at first base too. The lack of experience usually shows up on cutoff plays (“where do I stand?!”) or in-between plays (“do I try to get this grounder or let the second baseman take it?!”). There’s nothing LeMahieu and the Yankees can do about that other than keep working at it. The basic fundamentals, like catching and throwing the ball, should be a non-issue. It’s the other stuff that’s tricky.
Although LeMahieu is going to move around, the Yankees do not see him as a bench player. He’s going to play and play a lot. Aaron Boone recently told Joel Sherman he expects LeMahieu to “start 145 games,” which is a full-time workload. That means the plan is for LeMahieu to be in the starting lineup pretty much every single day, albeit at a different position while Torres, Troy Tulowitzki, Miguel Andujar, and Luke Voit (or Greg Bird, I suppose) rotate in at DH or get a day on the bench.
“Start with a place where we are totally healthy and things are going according to plan. You still envision Tulo off a couple of days a week, which means Gleyber moves over on those days,” Boone said to George King. “There is a day a week or every ten days Gleyber gets a day off. A day off or two for Andujar and the day (he DHs). It’s really not that hard to envision (LeMahieu) playing five out of six even with everyone healthy and doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
The Yankees are seemingly dead set on Tulowitzki being their starting shortstop while Didi Gregorius rehabs from Tommy John surgery, though Boone cautioned Tulowitzki will sit regularly early in the season. They don’t want to overload him after all those injuries and missing last season. That will open up playing time for LeMahieu. As will Andujar sitting when CC Sabathia starts. Look at Sabathia’s spray heat map the last three years:
Sabathia faced more than four times as many righties as lefties the last three seasons, and because he pitches those righties inside with the cutter, he gets a ton of weakly hit ground balls to the left side of the infield. He needs a good defensive third baseman and Andujar is not that. Neil Walker was Sabathia’s personal third baseman in the second half last year and it’s safe to assume LeMahieu will be his personal third baseman this year.
Two off-days for Tulowitzki plus one day as Sabathia’s personal third baseman already equals three starts per week for LeMahieu. Figure either Torres or Voit is going to sit once a week, so that’s a fourth start. And let’s not forget about left field either. Brett Gardner should not start against southpaws. Gardner on the bench, Giancarlo Stanton in left field, Andujar at DH, and LeMahieu at third should be the standard alignment against lefties.
For the sake of laying it all out, here are possible defensive alignments each time through the rotation:
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4||Day 5 (CC)|
Of course, it never works out quite that neatly, but I think you catch my drift. Tulowitzki and Gardner, the two guys in their mid-30s who shouldn’t play every single day, get two off-days each time through the rotation. LeMahieu sits the other day, and Day 3 in the scenario above is essentially a flex day. It could be Voit at DH, or Torres, or Andujar, or even Tulowitzki or LeMahieu.
Again, it never ever works out quite that neatly because someone is red hot and you want to keep him in the lineup, or someone is nursing an injury, or the Yankees see four lefty starters in a row, things like that. Generally speaking, a plan where LeMahieu plays four out of every five games while Tulowitzki and Gardner each play three times seems plausible. That’s a good framework and the Yankees will adjust as necessary.
LeMahieu will go from playing second base every day to playing second base twice every five days, plus first base and third base once each. It’ll take an adjustment, for sure. It’s up to Boone and the Yankees to keep LeMahieu (and everyone else) updated on the plan — there are few things players hate more than coming to the park and not knowing if or where they’re playing — and LeMahieu to stay ready. He’s a pro. He’ll be ready.
The Yankees tried to turn Neil Walker, a career second baseman, into a utility guy who moved around last season, and it didn’t work out all that well. He struggled with the reduced playing time. Boone and the Yankees say they will move LeMahieu around like they did Walker, except they’re going to play him more often, which will hopefully keep his bat sharp. They didn’t sign him to be a part-timer. He’ll be in the lineup close to every day.
“The days are there (to play LeMahieu) even if we have perfect health,” Boone said to Randy Miller. “And if we do, it allows us to keep guys healthier over the long haul because they are getting that one day a week where they’re down. It never quite works out that way.”