Coming off a season in which Starlin Castro served as a productive, everyday second baseman and prospect Isan Díaz emerged as his likely successor at that position, the Marlins made an attempt to sign...DJ LeMahieu?
Yeah, “odd” is right:
Odd but interesting: The #Marlins showed interest in DJ LeMahieu, sources tell The Athletic. Team viewed him as undervalued asset at potential below-market price. MIA knows it eventually will need to add vets. Might have accelerated process if successful on DJ. Never got close.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 12, 2019
On Friday, LeMahieu agreed to terms with the Yankees on a two-year, $24 million deal (it still isn’t official, though). They expect to use him in a super-utility role, which apparently was what the Fish were thinking as well considering that Castro and Díaz are already in place.
The 30-year-old was a complicated free agent, just like anybody else who comes on the market after an extended stretch with the Rockies. LeMahieu’s raw offensive numbers—.299/.352/.408 since 2012, .312/.372/.443 since 2016—aren’t fooling anybody; once you adjust for the unique conditions of Coors Field, he profiles as a slightly below-average hitter. He showed more over-the-fence power in 2018, but even so, homering in 2.6 percent of his plate appearances does not distinguish him from other major league infielders.
In LeMahieu, you’re getting a fundamentally sound fielder near the peak of his abilities who puts the ball in play and, as it turns out, is willing to move around the diamond (which he hasn’t done at all since 2014).
Another theory as to why he was a Marlins target: Derek Jeter sees a lot of himself in LeMahieu.
As explained by Jeff Sullivan on the Effectively Wild podcast, “They’re like the same kind of guy—right-handed, line-drive, ground-ball hitter who hits everything to right field, walks some and seldom strikes out. Their profiles are, like, shockingly similar.”
Sullivan isn’t comparing their results, of course. But consider that since 2002 (when directional batted ball data became available), LeMahieu has gone to the opposite field 35 percent of the time; Jeter’s rate from 2002 onward was 33.1 percent. LeMahieu is nearly as remarkable at avoiding pop-ups—4.2 percent of balls in play—as Jeter was (2.7 percent). They really are outliers.
Taking it a step further, Jeter and LeMahieu can relate as atypically tall middle infielders (listed at 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-4, respectively), both of whom played high school ball in the state of Michigan. Maybe the future Hall of Famer believed that there’s untapped potential in him?
And yet, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal specifies that the Marlins “never got close” to pulling off the surprise signing. I would guess that they were hunting for a steep bargain, like one year guaranteed and a 2020 club option.
On Friday, the Marlins added $18.4 million to their payroll by settling one-year deals with all of their arbitration-eligible players. Accounting for the other guaranteed contracts already on the books—Wei-Yin Chen, Martín Prado and Castro—and costs for the others active roster spots at/near the league minimum, they are on track for roughly $75 million in commitments.
That leaves a ton of wiggle room.
Marlins revenue streams are relatively weak at the moment, and no amount of spending would be able to vault them into playoff contention in 2019, but there’s still value—tangible and intangible—to acquiring veteran talent. Pursue free agents who can be stopgaps at positions of need (first base, bullpen, corner outfield) and mentors to young major leaguers. If they exceed expectations, recoup legitimate prospects via trade. If not, at least you tried to give the fans a decent product.
Joe Frisaro of MLB.com has repeatedly cited $100 million as an expectation for the Marlins Opening Day payroll. There are still an abundance of available players—comparables to LeMahieu include Asdrúbal Cabrera, Logan Forsythe and Josh Harrison—to get them there and potentially accelerate the rebuild, either directly or indirectly.