By tomorrow, every big league team has to decide whether or not they’ll tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players. And for the Cubs that means they have one very big decision to make regarding Addison Russell – and so far, it’s been very difficult to discern which way they’re leaning.
Even after another injury-riddled and overall unproductive season, Addison Russell’s glove, youth, past flashes of success, and top-prospect pedigree would seem to make him worth the (roughly) $4.3M he’s expected to earn through arbitration, but as we all know, that’s not the entire story. After his ex-wife, Melisa, came forward with accusations of domestic abuse, Russell was suspended for 40-games, 29 of which he still needs to serve next season. That suspension means that even if you can manage to ignore the moral issue, there’s a very real on-field decision to be made (that’s nearly 20% of the season!).
Of course, it’s not like there’s an obvious solution, either. If Russell is gone, Javy Baez can easily cover shortstop, but the Cubs would be without a starting second baseman, and wouldn’t really have someone to cover short if Baez went down for a long period of time (newly-acquired Ronald Torreyes is more of a depth/utility type, than an everyday starter). They could work out a trade for a second baseman, though as we discussed yesterday, that’s easier said than done, and we already know they’re not interested in spending boatloads in free agency, so … yeah: rock, meet hard place.
So where does that leave us? Well, despite the Cubs apparent reluctance to spend big in free agency, I don’t think that means they won’t spend at all. So let’s turn our attention once again to the middle tiers of free agency to see if there’s a fit. And, hey! What about former Cub D.J. LeMahieu?
Before any of you kill me, let me clarify two very important things: 1) there hasn’t been anything concrete connecting the Cubs to LeMahieu at all this winter, and 2) there’s a reason he’s clearly not in the upper tier of free agency: he wasn’t very good last season.
In 2018, LeMahieu, 30, slashed .276/.321/.428, which should look just fine to you on the surface for a good defender at second base, until you remember that much of his time was spent at Coors Field (.344 wOBA at home, .298 wOBA on the road), where the hitting conditions are far friendlier. With that said, he did have a monster offensive season as recently as 2016 (130 wRC+) and has always been a very high-quality defensive second baseman (three Gold Glove awards, including last season).
Thus, the defensive drop-off between Baez/LeMahieu and Russell/Baez might not be nearly as noticeable as we might’ve feared (and to be fair, LeMahieu (86 wRC+) did hit better than Russell (80 wRC+) last season, even accounting for Coors).
But is that all we can hope for in a move for LeMahieu, a defensive and offensive wash at a (likely) higher price and without the ceiling of Russell? Well, yes and no. LeMahieu may not have the overall ceiling of Russell, but FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan does think he has some hidden upside – in fact he believes he could be the “next Daniel Murphy – a Daniel Murphy who plays far better defense.” So I think it’s worth some consideration.
I’ll leave the meat of the argument to Sullivan, but in short, LeMahieu’s overall lack of power is his primary weakness on offense, but it doesn’t have to be. It appears as though, thanks to an extreme penchant for making contact *and* making really hard contact – he’d be an ideal candidate to go all in on the launch angle revolution.
Now, I know what you might be thinking: (1) Wouldn’t he have bought in by now? (2) that doesn’t work for everybody, (3) Chili Davis is a hotdog sandwich. But consider this from Sullivan: “Last season, there were more than 300 players who batted at least 250 times. But there were just six players who were at least one standard deviation better than the mean in both exit velocity and contact. LeMahieu shows up as one of the six, along with Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Anthony Rendon, Joe Mauer, and Nick Markakis.”
We often talk about players who could benefit from the launch angle revolution, but the truth is not every guy can make it part of his game. Certain pre-requisites are more or less, uhm, requisite for the juice to be worth the squeeze, and hitting the ball extremely hard is one of them. HOWEVER, as we’ve seen, if you don’t have the contact skills to go along with an impressive hard-hit rate, you might wind up striking out (or weakly popping up) too much to really elevate your game. And D.J. LeMahieu might just be in that sweet spot.
How about his contract projections?
And if he’s only able to a land a deal in the 2-3 year range at an average annual value between $10-$12M (all of which seems fairly reasonable), he might be able to fit into the Cubs’ financial picture.
This is not the direction I hoped they’d head this winter, but we might soon have to be realistic about which tier they’ll be shopping in and open-minded about the potential value in those tiers. D.J. LeMahieu has a lot to offer defensively, is young, would come cheap, and might just have a little offensive upside hidden away. He wouldn’t be the first guy to breakout at this point in his career, so, hey, I’m willing to listen.