The player who ended up being hands down the Yankees' 2019 MVP was a player Brian Cashman had to be talked into signing last winter.
“My reaction, quite honestly at first was, how's that fit?” the Yankees GM recalled last weekend.
The Yankees had no obvious need for DJ LeMahieu, the then two-time All Star and three-time Gold Glove winner at second base. They, of course, had Gleyber Torres, who finished third in AL Rookie of the year voting in 2018, locked in at second and Miguel Andujar, who finished second in ROY voting, at third. Greg Bird or Luke Voit would play first.
But those employed by Cashman — everyone from assistant GM Michael Fishman to director of baseball operations Matt Ferry to vice president of baseball operations Tim Naehring to director of pro scouting Dan Giese to assistant director of pro scouting Matt Daley —pushed Cashman to rethink LeMahieu. Jim Hendry, who drafted LeMahieu in the second round of the 2009 draft while he was GM of the Cubs and since 2012 has been among Cashman’s most trusted advisers as a special assignment scout with the Yankees, was particularly vocal.
“These individuals, with the groups behind them, were pounding their desks about me considering DJ LeMahieu as an option,” Cashman said, referencing the analytics department and pro scouting department, two entities that don’t always see eye to eye on player evaluations. “I didn't understand where he fit. But they maintained that he could play third, he could play first, he could be an everyday player and everyday asset and, you know, obviously, as well [play] second base and give us a lot of flexibility. So thankfully they pushed the idea.”
LeMahieu, who spent the previous seven seasons with the Rockies, signed a two-year $24 million deal, which became one of the best deals in franchise history.
LeMahieu, earning his third All-Star bid in July, finished the season hitting .327 with an .893 OPS, establishing career highs in homers (26) and RBIs (102). Gary Sanchez, watching his new teammate spray line drives to all fields early in April, tagged LeMahieu with a nickname that stuck inside and outside the clubhouse: –“The Machine.”
LeMahieu’s position player WAR (wins above replacement) of 6.0 placed him seventh in the AL (Alex Bregman of the Astros was first at 8.4, followed by the Angels’ Mike Trout at 8.3). LeMahieu, the NL batting champion in 2016 (.348), stayed in the AL batting title race all season, eventually finishing second to the White Sox’s Tim Anderson, who hit .335.
In the field, the 31-year-old proved valuable at three positions.
The idea when he signed was to have LeMahieu, predominantly a second baseman in his career, serving as a “regular reserve” in shifting around the diamond — second base one day, third on another, first base on occasion and maybe even short.
He would shift around but not as a reserve. Because Didi Gregorius opened the season on the injured list recovering from Tommy John surgery, Torres received most of those reps at short. That gave LeMahieu plenty of work at second, but there were opportunities at third and first, too.
LeMahieu played 75 games at second, 52 at third and 40 at first, providing the flexibility for Aaron Boone that the front office envisioned.
“He’s been a game-changer for this roster and this franchise in 2019,” Cashman said. “Thankfully, I was open-minded to at least considering anything that comes my way and it over time made more and more sense. Everything that was represented by analytics proved true. Everything that was represented by pro scouting [proved true] ... in this case it worked out extremely well and to our benefit. And so, again, I thank those individuals for pushing it and pat myself on the back for hiring people smarter than me.”