Yankees Search for a Leadoff Spark To Ignite Revamped Offense

The heart of the lineup is formidable, but can D.J. LeMahieu, long in the tooth, adapt to batting first?

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)
New York Yankees' Aaron Judge hits a home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the seventh inning of a baseball game on September 22, 2023, at New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

The New York Yankees are giddy about the potential of fielding an explosive offensive lineup in 2024. The slugging prodigy Juan Soto will join a healthy—  for now —  Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton to terrify opposing pitchers. All eyes during the early weeks of spring, though, are trained at third baseman D.J. LeMahieu. The hope is that he will be the fuse that ignites all that power.

Manager Aaron Boone and Mr. Judge, the Yankees captain, have made it clear that they anticipate Mr. LeMahieu will be the team’s lead-off hitter this season. Batting first, his primary assignment will be to get on base consistently and create opportunities for Mr. Soto and Mr. Judge to accrue runs batted in.

“The biggest thing I want to make sure we solve is that leadoff spot,” Mr. Boone said at Tampa. “If we can put ourselves in a good spot there and cement some combination of Aaron and Juan hitting back-to-back, it sets us up pretty well. Mr. Boone added, “I want it to be D.J.  Hopefully it is.”

Outfielder Alex Verdugo, acquired in an unusual December trade with the hated Boston Red Sox, will also get a look at lead-off, but the job appears to be Mr. LeMahieu’s to win. “If you got guys like D.J. leading off, he’s going to get on base, put the ball in play, and work the count,” Mr. Judge said.

Mr. LeMahieu, 35, struggled for two-thirds of the 2023 season before playing to his normal standards in August and September. That late surge lifted his batting average to .243 with 15 home runs, 44 RBI and 55 runs scored for the season and quieted talk he might be past his use-by date. If Mr. LeMahieu, who has three years and $45 million remaining on his contract, can match his career numbers of .295/.354/.415 it figures to be enough to set up what could be a dominant Yankees lineup.

“I think it’s going to be an impressive lineup and we’re going to feed off each other pretty well,” Mr. Judge said.

Mr. Boone will fill out his first lineup card on Saturday when the Yankees start their Grapefruit League schedule against the Detroit Tigers at Lakeland. Mr. Judge, a five-time All-Star and the 2022 American League Most Valuable Player, made it known he prefers to hit third, but is open to batting “anywhere that helps the team,” he said. 

Mr. Soto, who signed a one-year record-setting arbitration contract of $31 million to play in pinstripes, appears similarly flexible. Mr. Soto, 25, has blasted 91 home runs in the last three years while leading the majors in walks. Mr. Judge belted 138 homers during that same span.

“I’m going to be as much as I can on the bases so he can do his job and drop the hammer,” Mr. Soto said of Mr. Judge during a media session at Tampa.

Health coming out of spring training will dictate the lineup for Opening Day —   March 28 at archrival Houston — but figure that Mr. LeMahieu, Mr. Soto, and Mr. Judge will be followed by first baseman Anthony Rizzo; second baseman Gleyber Torres; Mr. Verdugo, the left-fielder; Mr. Stanton, the designated hitter; shortstop Anthony Volpe; and catcher Austin Wells or Jose Trevino.

Mr. Verdugo, 27, adds some pop and grit to the lineup. He hit .264 with 13 home runs, 54 RBI and 81 runs scored in 142 games last year for the Red Sox. His 108 doubles over the previous three seasons ranked seventh in the major leagues. 

Mr. Judge applauded the work of the Yankees front office during the winter. He met in a closed door session with owner Hal Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman following a disappointing season marked by an 82-20 record. The Bronx Bombers missed the playoffs. 

“I’ve always liked having guys who can drive people in,” Mr. Judge said. “So when you go out and you get a Juan Soto, you get a Verdugo, you get guys who can put the ball in play and drive guys in, I think that makes a statement about how they believe in things and what they want to do.”

Thanks to injuries and subpar performances, the Yankees had one of baseball’s least productive offenses in 2023, slumping to 29th in batting average at .227 and 25th in runs scored at 4.2. But Mr. Soto, who won a World Series with the Washington Nationals in 2019, thinks the 2024 Yankees are championship material.

“You see the lineup, you see the bullpen, starters everything. We have everything we need,” Mr. Soto said, before adding that “We have to put our egos away and play as a team; try to do the little things when it matters. That’s what it’s going to take to get to the next level. The homers, the doubles, the big hits, they’re going to come. But you’ve got to do the little things first.”

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