While the 2020 season bumps along in fits and starts, Mariners fans turn their eyes to the team’s stated window of contention, now likely pushed into 2022 with the loss of a year of development in the minors. Still, the Mariners have cleared a significant amount of payroll and this winter’s free agency class is tantalizing, so it’s never too early to start looking at adding the pieces that could help push Seattle’s young core to the playoffs.
With two outfielders ranked in the Top 20 plus a handful more scattered throughout the system, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that positionally, the team will rise or fall with their current crop of outfielders—spending large amounts of money on George Springer or Michael Brantley, only to find themselves pressed to give playing time to everyone who deserves it, doesn’t seem to be the most efficient allocation of resources for the Mariners. The infield has significantly more question marks. Without a 3B prospect anywhere near major-league-ready, and with a variety of intriguing but flawed players who can hold down second base, looking towards the infield makes sense as way to significantly bolster the 2021 and beyond Mariners roster. Enter DJ LeMahieu.
The 32-year-old hit free agency two winters ago coming off of two workmanlike but overall average seasons in Colorado; before that, a 4.4 fWAR season in 2016 was driven largely by a .388 BABIP (#coors) and followed by a couple of weak seasons at the plate buoyed by more or less universally praised second base defense. In a weak environment for free agents, LeMahieu could only find a spot as a utility infielder for the Yankees relatively late in the offseason, signing a 2 year, $24mm deal in the Bronx. Away from Coors and the maybe-excessive penalty of its Park Factor, LeMahieu exploded, playing across the diamond for the Bombers and putting up over 5 fWAR and a 136 wRC+. In the playoffs, with the Yankees finally mostly healthy, he played exclusively first base after spending time at every position except shortstop during the regular season.
LeMahieu is a Statcast darling. Batted balls over 95 mph are where hitters can produce true value—and for his career, LeMahieu has hit 53.9% of his balls in play over that threshold. He produced a hard hit rate of 48.5% in 2019, which put him in the 94th percentile of all MLB hitters. He doesn’t sell out for power, either, with a career K% of 14.9—and it’s been 14.1% or lower every year since 2016.
The positional versatility, meanwhile, is real—while splitting time between third and second, LeMahieu posted positive OAA numbers (remember, it’s a counting stat, so he has a relatively low +3 and +2 there after +13 and +9 numbers his last two years in Colorado). That lines up well for a Mariners squad that will lose Kyle Seager after 2021 and has a variety of question marks surrounding Shed Long’s future at second base that won’t be fully answered in a shortened season. No matter what happens with Shed Long, LeMahieu can have a spot—he eases the pressure on the team’s interesting but fringy infielder category, currently a very full bin including Shed, Tim Lopes, and Dylan Moore.
Why is a borderline elite player in baseball last year going to be a good fit for Seattle, instead of signing a 9-figure contract elsewhere? Age, inconsistency, and in all likelihood a depressed FA market this winter. LeMahieu is off to a scorching start again in New York, with a 178 wRC+ through 16 games, but is already 32 years old. His track record is better now than it was two years ago, but he could still only garner a 24mm guarantee. An interesting comparison (for contract purposes) would be Mike Moustakas, who earned a 4/64 deal from the Reds (plus a team option!) this past winter in a pre-COVID market.
Moustakas was a little more intriguing to a potential buyer because he hit FA a year earlier—in fact, he’s almost exactly LeMahieu’s age, making the comparison smooth on that point—but was a little less so because while he’s been a consistent player, he’s never shown the elite flashes that LeMahieu has. LeMahieu shares the positional flexibility—if you want to call signing a guy and saying “you play second now” flexibility—and probably merits something more than Moustakas earned. It’s not going to be much, though; it’s hard to imagine him topping 80 million dollars even in a pre-COVID market, and it seems quite plausible that something like a 4 year, $72mm deal brings him to Seattle.
Why DJ LeMahieu and not a Kyle Seager extension? After all, Seager is less than a year older and has produced throughout his Mariners career. It’s a supposition for this article that Seager won’t re-sign in Seattle. Every situation is different, but to date the Dipoto front office has not proved eager to keep the players who were cornerstones of the previous regime. That fact is worthy of critique somewhere else, but so long as it’s the case, the team is likely already planning to replace Seager. There are baseball reasons to prefer it as well: while Seager came up as a second baseman and theoretically might offer the same versatility, LeMahieu has gone out and done it in the major leagues. This plan would involve a year or overlap, but once Seager has departed, the team can move LeMahieu into his place or leave him at second, depending on which of the team’s young talents is performing.
The Mariners have no long-term commitments to speak of, and a deal like this would expire just as the team’s successful young players enter arbitration and begin to drive the team’s payroll upwards from within. As many teams across baseball prepare to cry poor this winter, it’s worth noting that something like my proposed deal is probably a worst case scenario for the team: it’s very difficult, maybe impossible, to predict this winter’s FA environment, and it’s possible players will be signing for reduced prices. Even if they sign for full pre-COVID price, however, it’s impossible to imagine owners won’t negotiate more prorated salaries if baseball hasn’t returned to a normal environment for 2021.
If the Mariners want us to believe their stated commitment to building a winner, they need to seize a competitive advantage by spending reasonable money in a way other clubs won’t this winter. If they are indeed serious about contending within the next couple of years, they need to show it by pouncing on players like LeMahieu, who have the upside to form a key piece of a contending roster without exploding the team’s self-imposed financial limitations.