Colorado Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu just had a year for the ages. His .348 batting average won the NL batting title and firmly established him as one of the game’s top second baseman. And that’s why now is the time for Colorado to maximize his value and trade him.
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For all the mistakes made by previous Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd, the man actually made some pretty decent trades. Case in point: The trade in 2011 that sent Ian Stewart and Casey Weathers to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for LeMahieu and Tyler Colvin. Three of the four players involved in that trade were non-factors, but LeMahieu has blossomed in a way no one expected.
DJ had an incredibly productive college career at LSU, but he wasn’t a particularly highly regarded prospect. He got drafted 79th-overall in the 2009 MLB draft. Even after his trade to Colorado, LeMahieu was still battling with the likes of Jonathan Herrera and Josh Rutledge for playing time as recently as 2013.
Additionally, he eventually seized control of second base though and this season his numbers weren’t just good, they were historic. His .348 BA was the highest by a starting second baseman since 1975. He finished the year particularly strong, including an insane .439 clip in August. The list of second baseman that have hit the ball like LeMahieu did in 2016 is short and full of Hall-of-Famers.
Furthermore the guy once acquired for two struggling former prospects has become more valuable than anyone ever thought previously possible. And, counter-intuitive as it may seem, that is precisely the reason Colorado should trade him this off-season.
Even when he’s at his absolute best, as he was in 2016, LeMahieu is basically Freddy Sanchez 2.0. He’s a fine complementary piece, but it’s hard to say if his barrage of singles is actually making the team better.
Everything came together just about perfectly for LeMahieu last season, and he still finished just 10th in WAR among second baseman according to Fangraphs in 2016.
Some might consider that an indictment of WAR’s usefulness, but it is a stark reminder that there is more to being a complete player than posting a high batting average.
When power was rarely seen from middle infielders, LeMahieu’s career-high 11 home runs in 2016 would be fine. But in today’s MLB that saw 12 different second baseman reach 20 homers this past season, LeMahieu is a decidedly below-average power hitter, even after accounting for his position.
That would be forgivable if LeMahieu was a demon on the base paths or a defensive whiz. However, he is neither of those things. While he’s not exactly slow, LeMahieu isn’t particularly good at stealing bases. He got caught only seven times in 18 attempts this year. And while he won a Gold Glove in 2014, both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference have graded his defense as slightly better than mediocre (at best) over the last two seasons.
And LeMahieu is also not going to get any cheaper in the coming years. He will make $4.8 million next season. This salary is reasonable. But he has just one year of arbitration remaining before potentially becoming a free agent as soon as 2019. On a team that’s going to have to find a way to pay for Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and a bunch of other up-and-coming stars, keeping LeMahieu could become cost-prohibitive in the not-too-distant future.
If this all sounds like an attack on LeMahieu, that isn’t the intention. The point isn’t that DJ is a bad baseball player (because he isn’t); the point is that his value is probably as high as it will ever be. Even if you assume LeMahieu’s contact skills are the real deal, it’s incredibly unlikely he ever hits near .350 over an entire season again.
Finally, DJ LeMahieu is a batting champion. As a gold glove winner he’s never looked better as a baseball player than he does right now. However, he is also an overrated, soon-to-be overpaid, one-trick pony. There is the possibility he may not even be actually good at that one trick moving forward. The Rockies can trade LeMahieu because that first sentence is true. The Rockies should trade him because the second sentence is as well.