What will DJ LeMahieu do for an encore after leading the majors with a .364 average in 2020? Well first, he needs to figure out where he’s playing next season. While the Yankees are expected to do all they can to keep the 32-year-old in pinstripes, it appears the Bombers have a fallback plan in place should things go awry in contract negotiations with the two-time batting champ.
Plan B, should they need one, is apparently former Indians and Astros outfielder Michael Brantley, a four-time All-Star and one of the most coveted left-handed bats in this year’s free agency. The 33-year-old has been remarkably consistent, batting .299 or better in six of his last seven seasons, the lone exception being his injury-shortened 2016 (.231 AVG in 11 games). Brantley is not a power hitter per se, though he does have a pair of 20-homer seasons on his MLB resume and would surely benefit from playing half his games at Yankee Stadium, a venue that has long favored left-handed hitters. The short porch in right field would seem to be tailor made for Brantley’s silky smooth, left-handed stroke.
A common criticism of the Yankees in recent years has been their odd lineup construction, employing a starting nine consisting almost exclusively of right-handed hitters. Brett Gardner and switch hitter Aaron Hicks were New York’s only regulars to bat from the left side last season. That would make Brantley an appealing option, but only in the event of LeMahieu’s departure.
Even with pitching holes to fill—starters James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka will both explore the market this winter—the Bombers would be crazy to let LeMahieu, arguably their best player the past two seasons (as his consecutive top-three AL MVP finishes would attest), walk in free agency. In addition to being one of the sport’s top hitters, LeMahieu is also a versatile defender with experience at three of the four infield positions and the requisite hardware (namely three Gold Glove Awards) to prove his qualifications. Not to mention the rarely-heard-from LeMahieu is as low-maintenance as they come.
Some, including perhaps the Yankees themselves (New York only shelled out $24 million over his two seasons in the Bronx, peanuts compared to what he’ll earn this time around), were skeptical of how LeMahieu would perform outside the more forgiving confines of Coors Field, fearing his gaudy stats as a Rockie were inflated by Denver’s high altitude. LeMahieu quickly put that narrative to bed by hitting a crisp .336 over his two seasons in the Big Apple.
Should it happen, Brantley’s arrival in the Bronx would come as bad news to former top prospect Clint Frazier, who performed admirably in place of an injured Aaron Judge this past season, setting career-highs in OBP (.394), slugging percentage (.511) and OPS (.905) while showing remarkable improvement in right field, where he was named a Gold Glove finalist. Brantley to the Yankees is probably a long shot, though given the report’s source—longtime ESPN insider Buster Olney—we can’t completely dismiss it.