When the Yankees signed D.J. LeMahieu to a two-year $24 million deal before the 2019 season, some people in baseball were puzzled. How would the Gold Glove-winning second baseman fit among their glut of infielders?
That question was answered quickly. LeMahieu promptly established himself as an indispensable Yankee — eventually emerging as the team’s best all-around player in consecutive playoff runs — and a remarkable free-agent bargain.
In order to keep LeMahieu in pinstripes after the expiration of that contract, the Yankees agreed on Friday to sign him to an even bigger new deal. But in a nod to baseball’s current economic landscape, the deal — set to be for six years and $90 million — was structured to protect the team from luxury tax penalties.
LeMahieu’s new contract figures were confirmed by two people familiar with the negotiations who weren’t authorized to speak publicly because it was not official yet. One person said the deal’s final hurdle was having LeMahieu undergo a physical examination.
Despite some competition from rival teams, the LeMahieu-Yankees reunion was anticipated. The Yankees, a World Series contender in 2021, have repeatedly praised LeMahieu’s impact on the team over the past two years. Even as baseball’s hot stove has been anything but this winter, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman reiterated in December that the team’s top priority was re-signing LeMahieu, 32. He said the team would wait as long as needed.
That lack of urgency was reasonable because LeMahieu — also coveted by the Toronto Blue Jays, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Mets, among other teams — did not want to go anywhere else. Quiet and competitive, he has said often how much he loves playing for a contending team, at Yankee Stadium and in New York.
“I want to stay here and I’ve said that a few times,” he said in September.
LeMahieu, a second baseman who can also play at first or third, has shined for the Yankees at the plate and in the field since he came to New York from the Colorado Rockies. He swiftly and emphatically dispelled the notion that the hitter-friendly thinner air of Denver was a major factor behind his past success.
In 2019, LeMahieu hit .327 with 26 home runs and 102 runs batted in, finishing fourth in voting for American League Most Valuable Player Award. In last year’s truncated 60-game season, he won his second batting title, leading the major leagues with a .364 average, and finished third in the A.L. M.V.P. voting. He was the catalyst of the Yankees’ offense, a consistent contact hitter in a lineup of sluggers who learned to better harness the power of his swing.
“D.J. is the freaking best hitter I’ve ever played with,” his teammate Luke Voit said in September.
Another teammate, Gary Sanchez, gave LeMahieu a nickname: The Machine.
And on a podcast this December, Bo Bichette, a young shortstop for the Blue Jays, said, “I think D.J. LeMahieu is the best hitter in baseball, and I don’t even really think it’s close, from what I’ve seen.”
Although LeMahieu will turn 33 in July, the Yankees are poised to hand him a deal longer than originally expected. After blowing past several luxury tax thresholds last winter to sign the star pitcher Gerrit Cole to a record nine-year $324 million contract, the Yankees wanted to stay under the mark going forward.
The coronavirus pandemic added significant murkiness to teams’ financial outlooks. Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ managing general partner, said in October that his team sustained the most significant financial losses of any M.L.B. team in the pandemic-affected 2020 season. The players’ union has questioned some of the financial losses claims by M.L.B. and its teams.
The luxury tax threshold for the 2021 season will be $210 million. Adding in LeMahieu’s expected salary, the Yankees’ projected payroll for luxury tax purposes sat at $189 million, according to Cot’s Baseball.
Spreading LeMahieu’s salary over six years gives them more wiggle room to potentially upgrade the roster, particularly on the mound. The Yankees’ starting rotation after Cole is either unproven (Deivi Garcia or Jordan Montgomery) or returning from injury (Luis Severino). Cashman has also previously expressed interest in re-signing Brett Gardner, a longtime Yankees outfielder and team leader who is a free agent.
LeMahieu’s return also most likely means that Gleyber Torres, who struggled defensively last season and whose best position is second base, will remain at shortstop in 2021.
Friday was the deadline for teams and players eligible for salary arbitration to exchange figures for the 2021 season. The Yankees had 10 such players; the most prominent among them, star outfielder Aaron Judge, avoided arbitration, agreeing to a salary of slightly more than $10 million.