As trade rumblings surrounding star Padres outfielder Juan Soto and the Yankees look to be nearing a tipping point, there’s other significant news in the Bronx as well. Manager Aaron Boone announced at the Winter Meetings this morning that veteran infielder DJ LeMahieu will line up as the team’s primary third baseman next season (link via MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch). Boone indicated yesterday that an outside acquisition at third base wasn’t likely, as the team felt covered with internal options. Today’s statement is a more forceful declaration of that likelihood.
LeMahieu, 35, is entering the fourth season of a six-year $90MM contract. He’s bounced around the diamond since originally arriving in New York in the 2018-19 offseason, spending considerable time at every infield position other than shortstop. Third base was his primary position in 2023, however, as he logged nearly 600 innings there and turned in a sound defensive effort in the eyes of Defensive Runs Saved (3), Ultimate Zone Rating (3.2) and Outs Above Average (3).
The remainder of the Yankees’ infield looks largely set. Anthony Rizzo will return to man first base, while Gleyber Torres is entering his final arbitration season and lined up as the primary second baseman. Anthony Volpe had an up-and-down rookie season at shortstop, ultimately putting together a 20-20 season with good defense but an underwhelming .209/.283/.383 batting line on the whole. Prospect Oswald Peraza gives the Yankees some additional depth at any position other than first base, but with no clear path to a starting role at present, he could open the season in a utility role, covering multiple spots on the diamond and spelling the regulars. (Peraza is out of minor league options and thus cannot be sent to Triple-A.) The versatility offered by both Peraza and LeMahieu would allow the Yankees to rather seamlessly cover an absence anywhere in the infield.
The 2023 season wasn’t LeMahieu’s best at the plate — far from it — but he still turned in a roughly average (by measure of wRC+) .243/.327/.390 batting line with 15 home runs, 22 doubles and three triples. The veteran infielder walked at a strong 10.7% clip, the second-highest mark of his career, but also fanned at a career-worst 22.2%. LeMahieu didn’t expand the zone any more than he did in seasons prior — he actually improved his chase rate from 2022 to 2023 — but his contact rate on both strikes and balls off the plate dipped.
LeMahieu entered the 2023 season with a lifetime 92.7% contact rate on swings at pitches in the zone but saw that number drop to 89.8% last year. His contact rate on the relatively rare chases off the plate was more concerning; LeMahieu entered 2023 with a career 76.1% contact rate on balls off the plate (including a nearly 80% mark from 2020-22) but made contact on just 70.2% of such offerings last year. He remained productive against fastballs (four-seamers and sinkers alike) but saw his numbers against opponents’ sliders, sweepers and cutters take a big hit. Time will tell whether that’s the beginning of a more alarming trend or simply a one-year aberration.
With regard to the remainder of the offseason, LeMahieu’s formal anointment as the Yankees’ everyday third baseman is of note. The Yankees already acquired Alex Verdugo from the archrival Red Sox and are ostensibly deep in talks for the aforementioned Soto. That would constitute a major revamp of the outfield alignment, but it seems there’ll be more continuity in the infield. Torres has been floated as a possible trade candidate at various points, and Peraza’s presence could embolden the Yankees to make some kind of move if the right opportunity presented itself. But Torres was also the team’s second-best hitter behind Judge this past season, and the Yankees would surely only swap him out if it meant acquiring immediate MLB help elsewhere (be it in the rotation, behind the plate or possibly in the ’pen).