On Thursday, news broke that the Mets, one of the few teams who’d continued to kindle the Hot Stove throughout the winter, were again firing up, with the signing of 34-year-old Jed Lowrie. And then on Friday, amidst a chaotic deluge of arbitration settlements, the Yankees added to perhaps the league’s most crowded infield mix, signing second baseman (and now, perhaps, utility infielder) DJ LeMahieu.
On the surface, both deals were head-scratchers: the Mets, of course, just replaced a pop-up option at the keystone with a potential hall-of-famer, and already seemed set at third and short. First base was tentatively reserved for a Peter Alonso/Dominic Smith/J.D. Davis mix, and the team had spent much of this month assembling depth options of every sort. So where would Lowrie fit? And why wouldn’t the team have used its (ostensibly) few remaining resources where it needed it most, viz. in center field, or to tighten a loose mid-relief corps?
The Yankees, then, may have seized the enigmatic upper hand with Friday’s LeMahieu signing. Gleyber Torres, an early-season option at shortstop during Didi Gregorius’ absence, looked to have second-base on lock for the next half-dozen years at least, and the team has young, good, and very cheap options at the corner spots. Plus, there’s the addition of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, brought in to hold down the early-season fort if he can make his way to the field, who seemed interested in New York only because of its clear path to playing time. LeMahieu has played positions other than his native second before, but none since 2014, since which time he’s entrenched himself as (arguably) the game’s premier defender at the position. Utility men don’t typically make $12MM a year, especially on the heels of two below-league-average offensive seasons, so perhaps the signing is a mere precursor to a move on a larger scale.
Lowrie has been excellent over the last two seasons, accruing 8.5 fWAR in 310 games. He appeared in more games last season, though, than he did from 2015-16, and nearly as many games in ’17 as he did from ’10-’12. Injuries have always been a major part of the profile, and the soon-to-be 35-year-old had mostly dropped the utility moniker in recent years, appearing only in cameo roles at positions other than second. So where will the team deploy him? Third base is an option, but that’d move Todd Frazier to first, where, after three middling offensive seasons, he seems a disjointed fit at best. Such a move, too, would likely keep Peter Alonso in the minors, where the recurrence of a demolition tour would seem of little benefit to anyone. Lowrie probably doesn’t have the range for short at this point in his career, and a utility role wouldn’t be appropriate for someone of his pay grade. Perhaps Frazier will shift full-time to the bench, where the club already has much younger and much cheaper options, or is sent away in a back-page trade, netting a fringe return at best. Steamer, for its part, forecasts Lowrie to be just two percent better offensively than Frazier next season, so hoping for a straight upgrade seems presumptuous.
LeMahieu is part of the rare breed, since Statcast data was made public, to post well-above-average exit velocities and a well-below-average launch angle. The combo works for Christian Yelich, but for most others – Eric Hosmer, Ian Desmond – it spells disaster. If the Yanks can rework LeMahieu’s swing – he already boasts an opposite-field-dominated approach that should fit perfectly in their park – and transplant his defensive wizardry at second to another position(s), the club may have a bargain on its hand, but such an outcome seems unlikely. He doesn’t fit at first, and the club has now lost leverage in a potential Miguel Andujar trade. If the rookie-of-the-year runner-up can shore-up his defensive woes and find a bit better control of the strike zone, the Yankees are looking at a perennial all-star. With a value nowhere near his potential peak, shipping out Andujar now – or moving him to first base – seems altogether shortsighted.
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