Why the St. Louis Cardinals should stay away from DJ LeMahieu

DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees fields in Game Three of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays at PETCO Park on October 07, 2020 in San Diego, California. The Rays defeated the Yankees 8-4. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees fields in Game Three of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays at PETCO Park on October 07, 2020 in San Diego, California. The Rays defeated the Yankees 8-4. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The St. Louis Cardinals have reportedly checked in on free agent infielder DJ Lemahieu this winter. What exactly would he bring to the team?

Pessimism is at an all-time high among St. Louis Cardinals fans. Right now, the team hasn’t done anything to improve the 2021 team after an abysmal offensive year in 2020. Even though the 2021 season doesn’t start for more than three months, fans have no confidence that the front brass will do anything in that time.

It is easy to ignore the players and big moves the Cardinals have made in the past four years. The fact is that outside of the 2020 offseason, the Cardinals have added a lot to this team. The moves just haven’t worked out.

Despite fan claims that the front brass is gun-shy after sending Luke Voit, Randy Arozarena, and Marcell Ozuna out of here, there are much better explanations for why there hasn’t been any action. To avoid getting any more off-topic, it comes down to the fact that there is just too much uncertainty surrounding the 2021 season still. Thankfully, that uncertainty seems to be clearing.

As things get more clear, there is a chance the gears start moving for the Cardinals. Evidence of this is the report that the Cardinals have remained in contact with DJ LeMahieu.

After the Cardinals cut Kolten Wong loose, the assumption was that Tommy Edman would move over to second base. However, that leaves the infield spread a little thin. We know for sure that the Cardinals are interested, so what would LeMahieu bring to the table?

To start, let’s get 2020 out of the way. In the 60-game season, LeMahieu made himself a lot of money. Playing in 50 games, the righty hit for a .364/.421/.590 slash line. LeMahieu’s batting average led the MLB and his OBP led the American League. Setting a career-high in wRC+ (177), the 32-year-old overplayed his expected numbers, even with those expected numbers being very high.

While all of his numbers look good on the surface, it’s really hard to view this as anything other than an effect of the small sample size of the 2020 season. The biggest reason why are his insanely high slugging percentage which comes as a direct result of him targeting the short porch of Yankee Stadium.

In his career, LeMahieu averages a 36% opposite field percentage. In 2020, that jumped up to 43%. It is a small sample, but he slugged .882 on balls hit to right field at Yankee Stadium in 2020. That is not sustainable.

After playing the majority of the beginning of his career in Colorado, LeMahieu left for the Yankees before the 2019 season. Moving from Coors Field to Yankee Stadium, he has still struggled with offensive consistency. In the past six years, he has three years with a wRC+ below 95 with the three other years resulting in a wRC+ at 130 or better. At 32, would fans really be happy betting on the 130 wRC+ years more than the latter?

LeMahieu has been very good the past two seasons in New York, but that is a stacked lineup in a hitter’s park.

Where LeMahieu is very consistent is on the defensive side of the ball. At second base, he has three Gold Gloves, beating out Kolten Wong in 2018 for his most recent one. However, LeMahieu’s defensive acumen has already begun to decline, leaving him slightly above average at present, with more decline to come. Earlier in his career, he was a bit more of a speedster on the bases, similar to Wong’s level of production, but that has also begun to whither away.

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The final aspect to consider with LeMahieu is what all of this is going to cost. Right now, the best reports on what LeMahieu is seeking is something around four years and $100M. For a 32-year-old who has shown declining defense and has always hit in a hitter’s park, that sounds a lot like the current predicament the Cardinals are in with Dexter Fowler’s contract.

LeMahieu hits for average consistently, but he fluctuates greatly in terms of total offensive value. It would be easy to argue that, when looking at LeMahieu now versus Fowler when the Cardinals signed him, Fowler was the more consistent player and was younger. Chop off Fowler’s first year in St. Louis and up the AAV and that is what the Cardinals could be paying for by signing LeMahieu for four years.

That last paragraph could be the definition of gun shy because I’m scared of signing a player who has averaged a 156 wRC+ the past two seasons, but the signs of regression in many areas are clear.

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There is a chance, a good chance, that there is not as much to worry about when it comes to LeMahieu as what I believe. However, his 2020 seems like an extreme outlier that is setting his price high. In my opinion, if the Cardinals are hell-bent on adding $25 million or more to their 2020 payroll, there are much better ways to spend it.