As was fully expected, DJ LeMahieu on Wednesday officially rejected the Yankees’ $18.9 million qualifying offer for the 2021 season and instead will become a free agent.
If LeMahieu, hands-down the Yankees’ overall MVP each of the last two seasons, does return to the Bronx, it is all but assured it will be under a contract that far surpasses the team-friendly two-year, $24-million free agent deal he just completed, a contract considered one of the great bargains in the sport.
But there are no guarantees LeMahieu is back in pinstripes as he’ll be among the most desired – and ultimately well-paid – free agents on the market, even with the anticipation of a relatively cold winter in terms of spending because of the financial hit every team has said it absorbed because of COVID-19 (the Players Association has expressed skepticism regarding some of those claims of financial hardship).
LeMahieu was named one of three finalists for the American League MVP award after winning MLB’s batting title with a .364 average – he became just the second player in big-league history to win a batting crown in both leagues – and also leading the AL in on-base percentage (.421) and OPS (1.011). That followed LeMahieu’s standout 2019 when he hit .327 with a career-best 26 homers and 102 RBIs.
"I want to stay here. I’ve said that a few times. You never know how it goes," LeMahieu said toward the end of the regular season. "I thought I was going to stay in Colorado (where LeMahieu played from 2012-18) and I didn’t. So, obviously, I’m hoping to be back here. You just never know how it goes."
Re-signing LeMahieu, a standout in the field as well as at the plate, is a winter priority for the Yankees – they very much would like to bring back Masahiro Tanaka, also a free agent, as well – though it remains unclear what kind of 2021 budget managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner will provide general manager Brian Cashman. All that is currently known is Steinbrenner continues to want payroll under the $210 million luxury tax threshold.
"It depends what kind of money is going to be required to be spent based on what we look at and decide needs to change," Steinbrenner said during an Oct. 13 appearance on The Michael Kay Show. "But there's no doubt we sustained significant losses this year, more so than any other team in baseball. It's been a crazy year, but we're just going to have to see what we really feel we need and what that's going to cost."
Speaking specifically of LeMahieu in the same interview, Steinbrenner said: "I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t recognize what a contribution he made to the club and how good of a player he is, so I recognize both those things and I’ll leave it at that."