Spurned by Colorado, DJ LeMahieu now spins hits for the Yankees

NEW YORK — When DJ LeMahieu decided to sign with the New York Yankees back in January, he had no set position and no defined role with a team that seemed to be top-heavy with infielders.

After all, the Yankees had Gleyber Torres, an All-Star as a rookie, at second, LeMahieu’s main position and Miguel Andújar, runner-up to Shohei Ohtani for the 2018 Rookie of the Year award, at third. And in eight big-league seasons, he had played three games at first base and two at shortstop.

What LeMahieu did have was a two-year contract worth $24 million, a desire to play in New York, and the disquieting knowledge that the Colorado Rockies, the team he had grown up on, won a batting title with and collected three Gold Gloves for, no longer wanted him.

All things considered, coming to the Bronx to sit on the bench didn’t seem like such a bad thing after all.

Only LeMahieu never really believed he would wind up sitting on the bench in New York.

“They just said they kinda wanted to add depth to their infield,” LeMahieu said before Saturday’s game between the Yankees and the Rockies at Yankee Stadium. “They told me, ‘You’re going to play a lot. We don’t know the exact rotation of it but you’re going to play a lot at second, third and first and maybe shortstop.’’’

Now, a little more than halfway through his first season in pinstripes, a Yankee lineup without LeMahieu at the top would seem as strange as an Angels lineup minus Mike Trout or the Beatles minus Paul, and every bit as toothless.

Currently, LeMahieu leads the American League in hitting at .334. His on-base percentage (.380) leads all AL second basemen. His OPS (.889) is higher than that of any other Yankee but Luke Voit. His 13 home runs are two shy of his career-high set last year in the rarefied air of Denver. And his fWAR (3.3) is second-highest among all second-baseman in the game.

He has been nearly as valuable in the field, starting 57 games at third, 26 at second, and nine at first. When Voit, the Yankees regular first baseman, had to leave Saturday’s game with an injury, it was no problem for LeMahieu to slide across the field to take his place. Of course, Saturday’s game ended on a diving stop by LeMahieu, who converted a bullet off the bat of Raimel Tapia into the final out of the ninth inning.

“You’re taking a Gold Glove second baseman and saying, all right, you’re going to be playing a few different positions,’’ Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “We were confident he would be able to handle that, and so far, he sure has.’’

BRONX, NY - JUNE 26: DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees hits a home run against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB via Getty Images)
DJ LeMahieu signed with the New York Yankees this offseason after eight seasons with the Colorado Rockies. Getty Images)

It’s not as if LeMahieu was a well-kept secret. HIs numbers were out there for everyone to see: a .301 career batting average, the 2016 batting crown, when he hit .348, the two All-Star selections and the Gold Gloves in 2014, 2017 and 2018.

In a league in which there are few if any unknown quantities, LeMahieu was hardly a hidden diamond strewn among the broken glass of the league.

So there is no point in asking what the Yankees saw in LeMahieu. The real question is, what did the Rockies fail to see in a player who was right under their noses for the previous seven seasons?

Money didn’t seem to be the issue; they were already paying Charlie Blackmon $21 million a year, Wade Davis $18 million for 2019 and in February, would give Nolan Arenado an eight-year, $260 million contract extension.

But when it came time to invest in an infielder, Colorado chose to give Daniel Murphy the same two-year, $24 million contract the Yankees gave LeMahieu. The Rockies never even made him an offer.

“Yeah, I was surprised,’’ LeMahieu said. “I don’t know their reasons. They never gave an inkling that they were dissatisfied with me in any way. I thought I was going to be a Rockie for awhile but it just didn’t work out.’’

And despite the fact that the Yankees could guarantee him no definite role or a set amount of playing time, LeMahieu said he passed up several other offers to play in the Bronx.

“I never thought I was coming here to be a backup,’’ he said. “You know how baseball is, things happen throughout the season, whether it’s injuries or whatnot. I think the deciding fact was the talent level in this locker room. I wanted to win. So when they showed interest in me, it was an easy choice.’’

Colorado’s loss became the Yankees gain, and a player who was signed as a luxury item — essentially, a high-priced insurance item against the possible regression of Andújar and Torres — has become more than just an indispensable part of the Yankees lineup.

“He’s been one of the best players in the league,’’ Boone said. “As we sit here today he’s probably in the MVP conversation.’’

In fact, LeMahieu has heard the “MVP!’’ chants from the Yankee Stadium crowds, a stunning development for a player who didn’t even seem to have a spot on the roster when the season began.

But Troy Tulowitzki, who the Yankees picked up to hold the seat warm at shortstop while Didi Gregorius recovered from Tommy John surgery, lasted all of five games before going on the IL with a calf strain. No one expects to see him again this season. Then, Andújar went down with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder and underwent season-ending surgery in May.

Suddenly, it was time to collect on that insurance policy. LeMahieu, who was not in the Yankees opening day lineup, played third and batted ninth in the second game of the season. He went 2-for-4 with an RBI double and with the exception of a brief stretch in April over which he went 1-for-18, hasn’t stopped hitting since.

And LeMahieu’s clutch numbers have been even more impressive than his overall. His .440 batting average with runners in scoring position in the best in baseball. He’s hitting a ridiculous .750 (9-for-12) with the bases loaded. And forget about trying to get over on him with a first-pitch fastball; LeMahieu’s average is .463, with three home runs, when swinging at the first pitch of an at-bat.

Friday night, he went 2-for-5 with two RBIs and two runs scored in the Yankees’ 8-2 win over his ex-teammates, and on Saturday he added three more hits in the Yankees’ 11-5 win.

“It’s not surprising at all to see what he’s doing this year,’’ said Bud Black, who took over as the Rockies manager in 2017. “What a good guy he is. A real grinder. You’d never know it by how low-key he is, but on the field he was maybe our toughest player. He’s tenacious out there, and the all-around player he was for us is showing up here for them.’’

LeMahieu, a laconic type, downplayed the satisfaction of performing so well this season. But he could barely suppress a smile when asked if there was extra motivation to produce as well as he has in front of his old team this weekend.

“That’s not really in my mind, trying to do anything extra trying to prove anything,’’ he said. “I just wanted to come here and have an impact on the team, be part of a winning team. I feel like it’s worked out so far.’’

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