According to a report from Jon Heyman, the Tampa Bay Rays are interested in free agent infielder DJ LeMahieu.
LeMahieu, 30, has consistently been a solid player over the past few seasons. After making his MLB debut in 2011 with the Chicago Cubs, LeMahieu took some time to find his footing. A plus defender, his offensive potential finally took off in 2016 with the Rockies as he produced a wRC+ of 130, accruing 4.0 fWAR on the season.
He is coming off a down season offensively in 2018, as he hit .271/.321/.428 with 15 HR, registering 86 wRC, but his defensive capabilities still helped him produce 2.0 fWAR over 128 games.
DJLM had 18 defensive runs saved, which is easily the highest among qualified second baseman (Ian Kinsler was the closest with 10 defensive runs saved).
As of right now, fitting LeMahieu onto the Rays current roster is a puzzle as it posses a glut of capable middle infielders (Brandon Lowe, Matt Duffy, Daniel Robertson, Joey Wendle, and Willy Adames).
A couple of predictions at the start of the offseason pegged LeMahieu to sign a two year deal around $18M. By comparison, free agent infielder Jed Lowrie reportedly agreed to sign with the Mets earlier today for a two year, $20M deal.
Between the two, DJLM is the superior defender, but Lowrie is the more consistent and potent bat. Since the start of the 2017 season, Lowrie has hit for a 121 wRC+ and tallied 8.5 WAR in those two seasons. DJLM meanwhile averaged a 90 wRC+ with a 3.9 WAR total.
The Rays could currently afford to give LeMahieu a Lowrie type deal, but the question remains as to why they would be motivated to do so, given their current roster situation. But even if there’s a fit, there are more questions.
With the depth already present at middle infield in the minor league’s, it’s possible the Rays are pushing for a one year deal in this scenario, seeing LeMahieu as a veteran addition who may succeed even more at the plate if he goes back to what works.
DJLM is a few years removed from his 130 wRC+ season in 2016, and attempted to right the ship differently this past season by batting for flyballs at 1.5x his standard rate, driving his 19.7% FB-rate in 2017 up to 29.5% in 2018.
When you play in Coors Field, looking to elevate isn’t a terrible idea, but given the recent proclivity for Tropicana Field to inflate the value of groundballs, it may be wise for LeMahieu to give St. Petersburg a try if he can return to his 55% groundball-rate from 2017. Last season also featured the lowest line drive-rate of his career at a league average 21%.
LeMahieu simply wasn’t himself in 2018, at least on offense, but it’s also not clear what his best self might be if he leaves Coors Field.
Given the Rays standards on defense, having interest in LeMahieu shouldn’t come as a surprise, as there’s always room for a glove like his, but as with all potential Rays signings it will come down to the cost more than anything else.