Red Sox Rumors: Yankees payroll cuts could allow Boston to steal DJ LeMahieu

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 17: DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees hits during the second inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on September 17, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 17: DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees hits during the second inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on September 17, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

The Red Sox could target free-agent second baseman DJ LeMahieu.

A year ago, Boston Red Sox fans were bemoaning the team’s ownership group for their insistence on slashing payroll in order to dip below the luxury tax threshold. The city nearly rioted when their miserly ways led to trading Mookie Betts in a glorified salary dump.

As much as fans want to trash the Red Sox for being cheapskates, every MLB team is cautious of the punitive luxury tax penalties. That will be the case more so than ever as clubs set their budget for next season in the wake of a pandemic that resulted in massive revenue losses from a shortened season without fans in attendance. Not even the New York Yankees are immune and the financial restraint forced upon them might cost them their own MVP candidate in DJ LeMahieu.

The Yankees found a tremendous bargain when LeMahieu flew under the radar during his last venture into free agency, signing the veteran second baseman to a 2-year, $24 million deal. LeMahieu rewarded them with an All-Star campaign that saw him win a Silver Slugger and finish fourth on the AL MVP ballot last year. He followed that performance by winning a batting title with a .364 average, leading the league with a 1.011 OPS, adding another Silver Slugger to his mantle and earning a spot among the finalists for MVP.

With another batting title plus three Gold Glove awards from his seven years in Colorado, LeMahieu is a well-rounded player who deserves consideration as the best on the market. That’s going to make it difficult for the Yankees to hold on to their star infielder.

According to Dan Martin of the New York Post, the Yankees are in danger of losing LeMahieu to free agency and the Red Sox are among the teams that could steal him away. Several other teams could enter the bidding war but Boston has a clear need at second base and plenty of room beneath the tax line to fit the type of salary LeMahieu will command.

The same can’t necessarily be said about a Yankees team that has some tough decisions to make this winter. Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported last month that the Yankees intend to slash payroll in order to avoid the tax next season. New York’s payroll stands at an estimated $171 million, leaving them with less than $40 million in space below the $210 million tax threshold. As Sherman suggests, their budget will presumably be set at a lower figure to allow the flexibility for mid-season moves, leaving the Yankees with closer to $30 million to spend this winter.

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That’s still plenty of room to squeeze LeMahieu into the budget but the Yankees have more dire needs to address in the rotation with Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and J.A. Happ hitting free agency. New York needs at least one starting pitcher to upgrade their suddenly thin and relatively unproven rotation behind ace Gerrit Cole. Re-signing Tanaka or a comparable mid-rotation option could eat up at least one-third of their available budget, which would make fitting LeMahieu on their payroll a tight squeeze.

There’s also some speculation that the Yankees would prefer to move Gleyber Torres from shortstop back to second base. LeMahieu has the versatility to cover either corner infield position but the Yankees don’t have an everyday spot available at first or third base. If second base is the ideal position for both Torres and LeMahieu, the Yankees should prioritize the future of their blossoming young star over the 32-year-old veteran.

The path leading LeMahieu out of the Bronx is beginning to clear, allowing Boston to swoop in. Not only would LeMahieu solidify a position that has been unstable since injuries derailed the career of Dustin Pedroia, but stealing him away from the Yankees also weakens their greatest rival.

The Red Sox have several other areas to address while remaining mindful of their own budget. They also must consider that LeMahieu will cost them their second-round draft pick if he declines the qualifying offer. There will be no shortage of suitors even if LeMahieu is priced out of New York’s budget.

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It’s unclear how focused the Red Sox are on acquiring LeMahieu but a case can be made that he’s the best free-agent signing they could make. He’s not getting as much buzz as some of the other high-profile free-agents, perhaps since it was previously assumed the Yankees wouldn’t let him get away, but the rumors that New York is legitimately concerned about losing their best player to their arch-nemesis should have us intrigued.