Looking at DJ LeMahieu as a Justin Turner replacement, should he not return

DJ LeMahieu. (Via)

Third base has been a non-issue for the Dodgers since about 2014. That’s when Justin Turner‘s tenure with LA began. He’s a free agent and, while he still probably comes back, it isn’t a 100% sure thing andhe isn’t getting any younger (36).

Word is, Turner wants a 3-year deal. Considering the designated hitter should be in the National League permanently by 2022, that seems like a no-brainer for LA. But on the off chance he doesn’t come back because the Dodgers don’t want to go to three years or Turner isn’t being offered enough money annually — whatever the reason — the Dodgers will have to turn elsewhere.

I wrote last week about some of those options. Edwin Rios is the best internal option. Nolan Arenado may be the best external option, but perhaps the most difficult to to acquire. That’s where DJ LeMahieu comes into play.

LeMahieu, 32, has been one of the best players in the game over the last two seasons with the Yankees. He got out of Coors Field and saw his numbers improve. He finished fourth- and third in AL MVP voting in 2019 and ’20 and hit 336/.386/.536 with a 146 wRC+. Not only that, he has added first- and third base to his defensive repertoire.

That’s important, seeing as LeMahieu would, likely, be the primary replacement for Turner at third base. The Dodgers have a lot of defensively versatile players (Max Muncy, Chris Taylor, etc.), so that, naturally, makes him an attractive player to Andrew Friedman and Co.

Let’s take a look at what has changed with LeMahieu from his time in Colorado and and his time in New York.

With the Rockies, LeMahieu was a more extreme ground ball hitter. From 2012-18, he had the 24th-highest ground ball rate of any hitter in the game. Seeing as he played half his games in Coors Field, it would be a bit more advantageous for him to hit the ball in the air. When he got to the Yankees in ’19, he did just that. His ground ball rate dropped to 50.1%. It was actually up a half-point from his previous season with the Rockies, but the batted ball profile worked better for him outside Coors, as his numbers were up across the board.

In 2020, LeMahieu — despite reverting a bit in the GB% department (56.6%), had his best season as a pro. He was aided a bit by a .370 BABIP, but he also posted career-bests in ISO (.226), slugging (.590) and saw his strikeout rate dip below 10%. All this while still hitting the ball hard. He has above-average exit velocity numbers in the Statcast era (since 2015) and has been 91.3 MPH or higher in five of the past six seasons.

In his career, he has hit fastballs very well. He has a .322 batting average against them in his career — 15th-best mark in the game since 2015. He has averaged a 92.1 MPH exit velocity on batted fastballs. When he hit fastballs in the air, his exit velo was 93.3 MPH (tied with Justin Smoak, Matt Carpenter and Wil Myers) and he hit them for an average distance of 272 feet (sandwiched between Ketel Marte and Xander Bogaerts).

For what it’s worth, when he hits fastballs on the ground, he had the 5th-best exit velocity in the game at 91.1 MPH (behind Marcell Ozuna and ahead of Mookie Betts). So, despite the heavy ground ball profile, he hits said ground balls really hard. If he’s expected to replace Turner at the hot corner, the Dodgers are probably going to have to be OK with how LeMahieu gets the job done. I suspect they would be — i.e., they probably aren’t going to try to change his hitting philosophy.

As for LeMahieu’s defense, he’d probably see time at all non-shortstop infield positions, with most of his work coming at third base. He has started 58 games there over the last two seasons, with a majority of his work still coming at second base. At third, LeMahieu was been perfectly average. He has 0 defensive runs saved in 487 innings at third base the last two seasons.

——-

Just as it’s more likely Turner returns to LA, it’s more likely LeMahieu returns to New York, even if they’re a year and $25 million apart in negotiations at present. He’s quite valuable to the Yankees and they’d have a difficult time replacing him, his production and versatility. Either way, LeMahieu is going to get paid by some team this winter.

LeMahieu would be the best of the easiest replacements at third base. Like I said, Arenado is probably the top of the wish list, but I find it difficult to believe the Rockies would pull the trigger on such a move. If Turner leaves, I suspect the Dodgers would turn up their pursuit of LeMahieu. He checks a lot of boxes at the play and defensively and would give the Dodgers a strong No. 3 hitter for the next few years — just as if they re-signed Turner.

I think Turner comes back, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t and LeMahieu tops the Dodgers’ wish list.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler
Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosts a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He is a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.