It doesn’t matter on what side of the pinstriped rope that surrounds the Yankees universe you stand when it comes to DJ LeMahieu returning to The Bronx.
The fans, who love to spend Hal Steinbrenner’s money, are unanimous about the Yankees’ most complete player not leaving via free agency. Manager Aaron Boone and the players certainly want LeMahieu back, and he has indicated he would like to stay.
So, it’s is a slam dunk, right?
Nothing falls into that bin these days due to the COVID-19 pandemic — except that the Yankees will make the $18.9 million qualifying offer to LeMahieu, who led the big leagues with a .364 average.
Like every big league club, the Yankees took a financial pounding this past season, not long after they dropped $324 million on Gerrit Cole’s deal, which has eight years remaining. And there is no guarantee the owners will want to start the 2021 season without money-spending bodies in the seats.
Then there is the possibility of the Yankees getting under the $210 million luxury tax for next season.
Still, it is hard to believe LeMahieu won’t be a Yankee in 2021. After making $12 million in each of his two years with the Yankees, LeMahieu, who will turn 33 in July, is due a sizeable raise — in the area of $20 million to $22 million per season. Length could be a sticking point for the Yankees, if LeMahieu is looking for four years.
But there is much more to the Yankees’ puzzle than LeMahieu, as they attempt to narrow the gap between themselves and the AL champion Rays.
Behind Cole in the rotation comes Jordan Montgomery — and then three colossal question marks. Gary Sanchez has gone from the next Manny Ramirez at the plate to being a possible non-tender.
Based on this past season, the Yankees made a mistake believing Gleyber Torres is a major league shortstop.
Free agent Masahiro Tanaka can fill one of the rotation spots. Like LeMahieu, the Yankees don’t have objections about the 31-year-old right-hander returning. And Tanaka (78-46 in 174 games for the Yankees) has never given an indication he wants to leave. Will they use the qualifying offer on him?
Trevor Bauer heads a thin free-agent field of starting pitchers. Charlie Morton and Kevin Gausman could be in play for the Yankees. An under-the-radar signing would be Taijuan Walker, who went 4-3 with a 2.70 ERA in 11 starts with the Mariners and Blue Jays. He missed nearly all of the of 2018 and 2019 seasons due to Tommy John surgery, but is still just 28 years old.
Without adding a starter or two, the Yankees would be asking too much of Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt and Mike King, their in-house options for the rotation. And no one knows where Domingo German, recently reinstated by MLB after a long domestic violence suspension, fits.
Sanchez, who will turn 28 early in December, gets blamed for everything wrong with the Yankees. But after he hit .147, it is hard to defend the catcher. Yet it also is difficult to envision Kyle Higashioka, who will turn 31 in April, as the starting catcher when he has just 72 games of big league experience in four seasons.
Free agent J.T. Realmuto, who will turn 30 in March, is reportedly looking for six years, which is likely longer than the Yankees prefer to offer. Other free-agent catching options are James McCann, an All-Star in 2019 who split time with Yasmani Grandal this year for the White Sox; and Tyler Flowers, who has been more than a routine back up (he averaged 96 games per year from 2013-19 with the White Sox and Braves). Austin Romine is a free agent, but the Yankees allowed him to flee to the Tigers last winter to install Higashioka as Sanchez’s backup. Mike Zunino became an option when the Rays didn’t pick up his 2021 option.
With the sport hemorrhaging money, its possible free-agent shortstops Andrelton Simmons and Marcus Semien could be considered bargains by the Yankees, which would allow them to move Torres to second and play LeMahieu at first.
Which brings us to trading Luke Voit and Adam Ottavino. Voit’s value may never be higher, after the 29-year-old led the majors in homers with 22. Even if the Yankees have to eat some of Ottavino’s $9 million for 2021, it would save them some money.
Getting LeMahieu signed is a priority. But it has to be the first of several moves. Not the first and last.