New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman addressed the media on Wednesday, calling free agent infielder DJ LeMahieu the "winter's priority," and stating that he was "confident that we will again have the highest payroll" in Major League Baseball, according to MLB.com's Bryan Hoch.
Cashman's sentiments, though notable, are hardly surprising. As we outlined when we ranked LeMahieu as the fourth-best free agent available this winter, he may offer more value to the Yankees than any other team:
Despite playing seven seasons with the Rockies, LeMahieu nearly doubled his career home-run total (from 49 to 85) over his two with the Yankees. That's notable for a number of reasons, including his groundball tendencies and what might be described as his beneficial relationship with Yankee Stadium's dimensions. LeMahieu had the third-lowest launch angle in 2020 among hitters with 200-plus trips to the plate, ahead of only Raimel Tapia and Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who hit a combined four home runs. What's more is that, according to Statcast's calculations, LeMahieu has hit about a dozen more home runs than he was expected to based on his batted ball's trajectories. In other words, to sign LeMahieu is to gamble that his power profile might be perfectly tailored for Yankee Stadium in a way that will not translate to other parks. What should translate are his bat-to-ball and defensive skills and his ability to shoot the ball to right-center field. Those aspects aren't as sexy, and aren't as likely to be rewarded with a large sum. This, then, feels like a situation where LeMahieu should be valued more favorably by New York than anyone else; the question is whether the Yankees will bid against themselves.
The only rub for the Yankees is that retaining LeMahieu necessitates leaving Gleyber Torres at shortstop, which in turn downgrades New York's infield defense. The alternate would be to sign or trade for a better defensive shortstop, thereby sliding Torres to second. Given the construction of the Yankees roster, that would leave LeMahieu either without a spot or in line to take over at first or third base, depending on what the Yankees did (or were willing to do) with Luke Voit or Gio Urshela.
Whatever the Yankees decide to do with their infield, Cashman's claim about once again leading the majors in payroll seems reasonable. Spotrac currently has the Yankees with a 2021 payroll that's estimated to be $14 million behind the Los Angeles Dodgers'. The Yankees would seem to have more holes to fill than the Dodgers: in addition to LeMahieu, New York is also at risk of losing starters Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton to free agency, as well as outfielder Brett Gardner. The Yankees are likely to leapfrog the Dodgers as they either retain or replace those individuals.
One last Cashman quote worth highlighting: he called Gary Sanchez the "heir apparent" at catcher, noting that he was the favorite to enter the season as the starter. The Yankees had been rumored to have interest in J.T. Realmuto and, before he signed with the New York Mets, James McCann. Even if Cashman deems Realmuto beyond his reach, he could still add a more competent backup backstop.