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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees can't afford to lose DJ LeMahieu

DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees takes batting practice

DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees takes batting practice before Game 3 of the ALCS against the Astros on Oct. 15, 2019, at Yankee Stadium. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Brian Cashman netted one of his best-ever bargains in luring DJ LeMahieu to the Bronx with a two-year, $24 million contract, a deal he vastly outperformed.

Little did Cashman realize at the time how much it was going to cost him on the back end. Signed as a relatively cost-efficient utility man with big upside, LeMahieu morphed into something significantly greater since putting on pinstripes: this year’s AL batting champ, a perennial MVP candidate and the Yankees’ best player.

Cha-ching.

Few Yankees can count themselves as legit irreplaceable, and maybe the only other one, Gerrit Cole, just signed his nine-year, $324 million contract last December. As Cashman describes it, Cole was his "white whale," the general manger's career obsession after he slipped through their grasp to attend UCLA and subsequent trade conversations never came to fruition.

Frankly, the Yankees have to view LeMahieu with similar urgency this winter, albeit on a smaller economic scale. He’s become that critical to their success, not only for his statistical production, but his ability to stay on the field -- at numerous positions -- while too many other key players get hurt.

The Yankees have work to do this offseason: Convince Masahiro Tanaka to return on a team-friendly deal, maybe upgrade at catcher if they can find a taker for Gary Sanchez (the New York Post says they’re listening). Pursuing Trevor Bauer, the top free-agent arm, or trading for Francisco Lindor (then tacking on a costly extension) seem to be moves beyond their anticipated budget.

But none of this can really be entertained before LeMahieu is locked up, especially if money is as tight as the Yankees claim it to be. There is no Plan B for LeMahieu, who in his first two seasons hit a combined .336 with a .922 OPS over a total of 195 games. Everything else could get figured out. But losing LeMahieu, a proven New York performer, is unthinkable for all he’s meant to the Yankees.

"If you take a snapshot of the last two years, you can probably count on one hand how many players have been as good as DJ LeMahieu," manager Aaron Boone said last month shortly after the season ended. "And how important they’ve been to their team. We’ll see what happens moving forward. All I can tell you is he’s been a pleasure to be able to manage, and to watch him go out and prepare the way he does, perform the way he does, and -- in his way -- lead the way that he does, he’s a special player, a special person. And of course we’d love to have him back. But you never know where this offseason is going to go."

LeMahieu didn’t get to add MVP to his resume for this truncated season. He came in third when the results were announced Thursday night, behind the White Sox’s Jose Abreu and Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez, respectively, after a fourth-place finish in 2019. But it wasn’t as if LeMahieu needed the title for another chip in these upcoming negotiations. He’s got plenty of ammo for negotiations.

As for the price tag? That’s difficult to say. LeMahieu turns 33 next July, but that’s offset by the heavy interest he’s expected to receive in the coming weeks, a competition that could push him close to the $100 million mark. The Yankees should feel comfortable with the bidding process, however, because LeMahieu doesn’t carry the same risk as an outside free agent.

While LeMahieu already has been the club’s MVP for two years running, he also genuinely likes playing in New York, a place that’s not for everyone, as Cashman well knows. That’s worth a few extra bucks, too.

"I enjoy it," LeMahieu said Thursday night on MLB Network. "Every game feels like a big game. You feel like you’re under the spotlight -- not getting away with anything in New York. I just feel like it’s a city that loves baseball, and baseball is my passion, so I just feel like it’s a really good fit."

You read that correctly. LeMahieu actually said "really good fit." What else does Cashman need to hear? Would the Yankees really let LeMahieu walk over money? Both Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner have referenced the team’s huge financial losses because of the pandemic, but with owner/superfan Steve Cohen -- and his $14 billion -- now in charge of the Mets, the Yankees’ claim to the New York throne is no longer automatic.

And have we mentioned the Yankees’ title drought is now up to 11 years and counting? When Cashman first acquired LeMahieu, no one considered him the last piece to the championship puzzle. But after watching him flourish in the Bronx the past two seasons, it’s become much harder to imagine them winning No. 28 without him. That’s a scenario the Yankees truly can’t afford right now.

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