The Oakland A’s decision at second base will be their single most consequential move of the offseason. They could wind up with anything from 5-WAR All-Star Jed Lowrie to raw youngster Franklin Barreto to any kind of stopgap veteran in between. On Monday another name was added to the radar, as the team “has expressed interest” in free agent D.J. LeMahieu, according to Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle.
In her writeup, Slusser makes clear that all options (including Lowrie) are still on the table. The point is that the A’s are looking around at everyone available, and she mentions a further list of names that could also be in the picture.
As for LeMahieu, he is the polar opposite of Lowrie — a glove-first player. He’s won three Gold Gloves, including the last two straight, and he also picked up a Fielding Bible award in 2017. The metrics agree that he’s consistently good in the field, and sometimes great. His defense is of the caliber that it can power his WAR all on its own, even in seasons in which he doesn’t hit much.
Unfortunately, that describes most of his seasons. LeMahieu is capable of hitting .300 because he makes a lot of contact, and he did it three years in a row before snapping his streak this past summer. He even won a batting title in 2016, with a .348 mark. There’s not much there beyond the singles, though, as he walks slightly less than average, his isolated slugging is a paltry .117 for his career, and he doesn’t steal bases anymore.
LeMahieu, career: .298/.350/.406, 90 wRC+, 7.3% BB, 15.2% Ks
His high rate of grounders is a big impediment to his power. He averages single-digit homers, though he managed a career-high 15 last season. However, he hits the ball hard enough (32nd-of-332 in exit velocity) that Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wonders what he’d look like if he pulled the ball in the air more often. Sullivan opines that LeMahieu has the tools to be a candidate for a Daniel Murphy-type power breakout someday. At the very least he’s got some bounce-back upside after a career-worst BABIP last year, even despite leaving Coors Field and its enormous, friendly outfield.
Add it all up and he can be an effective player, good enough for two All-Star berths so far. When the BABIP gods smile upon him he can rack up 4-5 WAR, but 2 WAR is a safer bet and the projections have him just north of that.
The question is, how well does the 30-year-old fit on the A’s? The first thing that stands out is his right-handed bat. Oakland was already heavy on righties even before removing the switch-hitting Lowrie, and the in-house option (Barreto) is also a righty. Should the team prioritize that consideration in their 2B choice, with a couple lefty bats available on the market?
On the other hand, even with a low wRC+ (86 last year) LeMahieu is still a high-contact hitter who avoids strikeouts. That is something the A’s need more of, especially if Lowrie indeed goes elsewhere. The powerful core of A’s hitters is somewhat lacking in the ability to poke a simple single to bring home a runner when needed (see: Wild Card Game), and perhaps even an empty .300 average would be useful. Jonathan Lucroy only batted .241 last summer but still notched two walk-off hits because he at least didn’t whiff.
As for LeMahieu’s plus defense, is that a good or bad fit in Oakland’s already airtight infield? That is, do they already have so much of the ground covered that there would be diminishing returns on paying for another top-notch glove, thus making it a bad value? After all, you can’t field 110% of the grounders hit at you. Perhaps resources would be better spent on offensive production, especially when the shoes left behind were last worn by a bat-first player.
For more clarity, I talked to Adam Peterson of Rockies website Purple Row:
What sets him apart is his height (6’4”) and his ability to not make mistakes. He can get to balls, especially low liners, that most second basemen won’t be able to reach, and he will make sure a ball that gets hit to him gets converted into an out. He’s also excellent at turning double plays, but I’m never sure how much of that has to do with your partner up the middle and how much is just pure skill.
Never mind, that sounds like a brilliant complement to the A’s infield. No extra range being wasted, just near-perfection on the balls hit into his normal zone. That’s similar to what is asked of Marcus Semien at shortstop and what was asked of Lowrie last year, both to the successful tune of Gold Glove finalist nods. And what range LeMahieu does add is vertical, which won’t overlap with the horizontal swaths of turf already covered by the Matts.
On top of all that, Peterson has the following to say on LeMahieu’s personality: “He is probably the quietest guy in the clubhouse, at least when reporters come in. He’s got a ‘put your head down and get after it’ kind of personality that’s easy to appreciate.” Considering the A’s current clubhouse was noted for its quiet professionalism last year, he sure sounds like he’d fit in. This is one area where he’d replace Lowrie exactly.
The final factor is money, but that shouldn’t be an obstacle. Although the FanGraphs crowdsource sits at 3yr/$36M, MLB Trade Rumors is more conservative at 2yr/$18M. The A’s can afford that range of dollars if they deem this the best use of them, and since he doesn’t carry the age/injury risk of Lowrie the third year wouldn’t be as much of a problem if absolutely necessary.
Personally, my first choice is still Lowrie on a two-year deal. We know how perfect of a fit he is because we’ve seen it, and there’s a good chance he’s the best 2B on the market. I’m also valuing incumbency more than usual, because if you want to stop a culture of constant turnover then you have to start somewhere.
But if Lowrie gets priced out, or otherwise doesn’t return, then I could see LeMahieu rising to the top of my wish list. His particular set of skills could upgrade Oakland’s infield defense from the best in today’s MLB to one of the best in all-time history, and his bat could provide some extra hits in the nine-hole as a second-leadoff type of table-setter. Another righty hitter isn’t ideal, but I’m not sure that it should be a complete dealbreaker.
It would be different than Lowrie, with some of the team’s value shifted away from the lineup and toward the gloves. The top-five offense had room to spare last year, but only if the pitching improves to offset it. LeMahieu could help that with his defense, especially if the A’s capitalize on their infield strength by signing some extreme groundball pitchers, which they should hopefully be doing already.
We’ll see how the market goes, but the bottom line is good news: There are more quality options on the table than just Lowrie and Barreto.