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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

DJ LeMahieu's loyalty paid off for Yankees and their machine

DJ LeMahieu celebrates after hitting walk off home

DJ LeMahieu celebrates after hitting walk off home run against the Athletics in the bottom of the 11th inning for a 4-3 victory at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 31, 2019. Credit: Errol Anderson

Unlike most machines, other than maybe blenders and air fryers, DJ LeMahieu’s math isn’t all that great. Because the 2020 MLB batting champ, newly signed to a six-year, $90 million deal with the Yankees, provided some shaky analysis of the numbers when asked what ultimately went wrong last season.

"I think we ran into a really hot Tampa team," LeMahieu said Thursday during a Zoom call with the media. "I thought we were better than they were. I think they just made a couple plays that we didn’t. And that was the bottom line.

"Moving forward, we’ve got to make those plays, whatever it is. But I just thought last year, they just had our number, and it was disappointing."

Actually, the Rays, in no uncertain terms, owned the Yankees, who won only twice in 10 regular-season meetings and finished seven games behind them in the AL East. LeMahieu & Co. did stretch Tampa Bay to a fifth game in the Division Series but also came up short, losing 2-1.

And all that was with LeMahieu in the lineup, hitting .364 with a 1.011 OPS from the leadoff spot, playing three positions, doing everything that a player who finished third in the MVP voting does.

Point is, it was unimaginable that there was ever any sliver of a chance the Yankees would let him end up somewhere else this winter.

You just don’t let your best player get away.

Maybe in Boston (see Betts, Mookie) or Cleveland (see Lindor, Francisco), but not in the Bronx, where the Yankees aren’t supposed to let something as plentiful as money prevent them from assembling their best chance at contending for a World Series.

Well, that’s the idea, even if the Yankees didn’t quite spend up to the usual expectations this offseason. I was very surprised that they didn’t push harder to retain Masahiro Tanaka, who revealed Thursday that he had signed with the Rakuten Eagles, his original NBP team in Japan. Instead, general manager Brian Cashman chose to shore up the rotation by giving $11 million to Corey Kluber, who threw all of 18 pitches last season because of a shoulder issue, and trading for Jameson Taillon, coming off the second of two Tommy John surgeries.

Cashman also made the highly unconventional move of calling on the Red Sox for a salary dump, handing them Adam Ottavino to pocket most of his $8 million salary for this coming season. Not the sort of transactions we typically anticipate from the Yankees, but they haven’t been shy about citing close to a half-billion dollars in lost revenue because of COVID-19 last summer.

If LeMahieu had been a casualty of that accounting, say jumping to the Dodgers or Mets for more money, the Yankees would have faced a PR blowback of epic proportions. But Cashman got lucky with The Machine. It’s extremely rare these days, in any sport, for a free agent to not only publicly express his desire to stay put but actually mean those words. LeMahieu truly did. That allowed the Yankees to stretch out his $90 million over six years, lowering his average annual value to a ridiculously manageable $15 million for a player who finished in the top four for MVP the past two seasons.

"It’s no secret that I wanted to be back with the Yankees," he said. "I wanted to be back in New York. It was frustrating at times because it took so long, but I’m so excited to be back. That’s what I wanted from the beginning."

LeMahieu went on to say that he didn’t understand why the whole thing didn’t get wrapped up two weeks after the season, so that gives you an idea of how locked in he was about returning to the Bronx.

Considering that the Yankees’ entire winter blueprint hinged on what happened with LeMahieu, having it drag on as long as it did might have been a problem if this hadn't been such a strange economic climate for baseball. But the Yankees never wavered in their commitment to LeMahieu, and getting him back basically overrides whatever else they failed to do.

The singular focus was reminiscent of a year ago with Gerrit Cole, albeit on a much smaller financial scale, and there is no minimizing the importance of what LeMahieu’s consistency brings to a Yankees roster t that seems perpetually banged up. LeMahieu has been the reliable motor, and they would have been weakened considerably without him.

"For me, it wasn’t really a number per year or a number total or anything like that," LeMahieu said of his contract negotiations. "I just wanted to be part of a good fit. And obviously the Yankees was as good a fit as I can think of. I’m just glad it all worked out."

The Yankees should be grateful, too.

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