Yankees’ Off-Season Yields a Few Gambles, and One Sure Thing

Yankees’ Off-Season Yields a Few Gambles, and One Sure Thing

D.J. LeMahieu is back for six more years of steady hitting, but his team is rolling the dice with a boom-or-bust starting rotation.

D.J. LeMahieu has been the Yankees’ best player over the last two seasons. He has hit .336 with 8.9 wins above replacement.
Credit...Kathy Willens/Associated Press

For his second act as a Yankee, D.J. LeMahieu began with a goodbye. Meeting with reporters Thursday to discuss his new six-year, $90 million contract, LeMahieu opened with a statement on Masahiro Tanaka, who announced his departure on Thursday morning.

“Just wanted to mention what a great teammate he’s been, what an impact he’s had on the Yankees and the city,” LeMahieu said over Zoom. “As exciting as it is, I’m disappointed I’m not going to be able to play with him anymore.”

Tanaka returned to Japan to rejoin the Rakuten Golden Eagles, the team he led to a championship in 2013 before signing with the Yankees. He ended a seven-year run in the Bronx with a 78-46 record and two All-Star selections, but no appearances in the World Series.

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The Yankees have spent more than $2.2 billion in salaries since their last World Series, in 2009, when they beat the Philadelphia Phillies for their 27th title. Some investments have bombed, like Jacoby Ellsbury; some have been solid, like Tanaka; and some have been overwhelmingly successful, like LeMahieu.

LeMahieu has been the Yankees’ best player in each of the last two seasons, a .336 hitter with the versatility to play at least 60 games apiece at first, second and third base. His first contract with the team — for $24 million over two years — was a steal.

The new deal might not age so well; LeMahieu will be 38 when it ends. But by stretching it to six years, the Yankees kept the annual value to $15 million per season. That is an important consideration if the team hopes to stay under the $210 million payroll threshold to avoid paying Major League Baseball’s heavy penalty.

The players union’s belief that the sport’s luxury tax acts as a de facto salary cap will be a flash point in negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. (The current one expires after this season.) In the Yankees’ case, a lack of payroll flexibility has led to some unusual moves.

On Monday they traded an extravagance — Adam Ottavino, one of three Yankees relievers who made at least $9 million per season — to the Boston Red Sox, of all teams. In addressing their glaring weakness, the starting rotation, the Yankees have opted for high risks, high rewards and relatively low investments: Jameson Taillon, acquired from Pittsburgh for four prospects, and Corey Kluber, who signed a one-year deal for $11 million.