He had played in New York two seasons, transitioning from good to elite as a Yankee. These covered his age-30 and -31 campaigns, during the second of which he won the batting title in a shortened season.
With that, Paul O’Neill concluded his 10th major league season and a three-year, $10.5 million contract and headed into free agency. He did not want to leave and the Yankees wanted him to stay. But all was clouded by doubt about lost revenue in his walk year and the questions about what could be expected in 1995.
DJ LeMahieu has played in New York two seasons, transitioning from good to elite as a Yankee. These have covered his age-30 and -31 campaigns, during the second of which he won the batting title in a shortened season.
With that LeMahieu has concluded his 10th major league season and a two-year, $24 million contact and is headed into free agency. He does not want to leave and the Yankees want him to stay. But all is clouded by doubt about lost revenue in his walk year and the questions about what can be expected in 2021.
“The similarities are pretty striking,” O’Neill’s agent during his playing days, Joe Bick, said by phone.
O’Neill signed a four-year, $19 million pact to stay. Even with all the uncertainty about next year, LeMahieu is assured of making no less than $19 million just for 2021 because the Yankees will surely make him the $18.9 million qualifying offer.
So since their first two years as Yankees were so similar (O’Neill hit .331, LeMahieu .336), can anything be learned from the O’Neill negotiation to inform what is coming now?
Bick had determined that O’Neill was worth four years at $24 million. But his client told him that if the Yanks offered four years at $15 million, O’Neill wanted to sign; so much had he fallen in love with being a Yankee.
“I told him he was out of his mind,” Bick said. “I told him that he was going to make me and him look like idiots and that the Players Association is going to be mad at us (for underselling his value). We ended up at a middle ground.”
Determining a middle ground with LeMahieu in this environment is tricky. Had we never heard of COVID-19 and LeMahieu had the two seasons he just had, he is probably looking at no less than four years at $100 million (definitely topping the four years, $92 million that Minnesota gave Josh Donaldson last offseason). His talent, versatility and seriousness perhaps gains a fifth year and/or a value ticking more toward $30 million per season. The Yankees would be facing a lot of competition.
But now? We should expect that the Yankees are going to cut payroll and so are most clubs. They probably will try to hold the line at three years and no more than $20 million annually. And with revenue losses in 2020 and doubts about what is coming in 2021 across the sport, how many teams will force the Yanks to go higher? The Giants come to mind. Word is the Dodgers and Padres are among those who might see this as an offseason to spend to capitalize when so many others don’t. The most interesting wild card is, if he gets control, the Steve Cohen Mets, who could plug in LeMahieu at third, as the righty diversity they need and the instant victory for Cohen with Met fans (stealing a great player from the Yankees).
So then the question becomes: Does LeMahieu want to stay badly enough that he tells his agent, Joel Wolfe, what O’Neill told Bick: No matter what, keep me a Yankee.
The union saw the other mega-team, the Dodgers, retain Mookie Betts out of this free-agent class for 12 years at $365 million and will expect that the best free agents, at minimum, will still receive values similar to normal times.
“Any contact I have ever done, I care about one thing — and it ain’t what the Players Association thinks or what other agents think, it is what my client thinks,” Bick said. “I care about Paul O’Neill being happy. Period. At that point and time, I had been around long enough and had all the respect in the world for the Players Association. (Union head) Don (Fehr) and Gene (Orza) were there and if Gene didn’t like where you were going (with a contract), you would hear from him in five minutes and he would be down your throat, and I love Gene. But that’s the way it is done. In the final analysis even (the union) would say that is up to the player. All you can do is explain it to the player. I probably had 20 conversations with Paul and told him he was $1 million to $1.5 million less than what he was worth (annually), but it was worth it to him to be there.”
O’Neill did get a $1.2 million signing bonus, which doesn’t sound like much. But at the time, the Players Relations Committee had told organizations not to bestow pay-immediate signing bonuses that would fund players during a work stoppage and encourage them to stay strong and out. But this was part of the compromise.
Is there anything similar the Yankees could do with LeMahieu? For example, an easily triggered option year at a large dollar figure or with a large buyout that would keep down the value now, but potentially greatly expand it later in hopefully more flush times?
O’Neill, remember, never even reached free agency before a deal was struck. If history is to repeat, it means the Yanks and LeMahieu have about two weeks to navigate a unique negotiation.