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DJ LeMahieu returning to the Rockies could still make sense

It will depend on how this year’s free agent market shapes up.

DJ LeMahieu is unlikely to return to the Rockies. As soon as he hit free agency it seemed clear that the Rockies planned to move on. And that seemed like the right plan. They have a number of highly regarded prospects who can play second base, and LeMahieu seems due for a decent payday in free agency.

But what if LeMahieu falls victim to recent trends in free agency and sees his market crash? Free agency isn’t what it once was, and veteran players have increasingly found themselves waiting. For example, It was just last year that Mike Moustaskas ended up back with the Kansas City Royals on a one-year, $6.5 million deal. If there’s no market for DJ and he ends up waiting until sometime into February or even into Spring Training to sign, the Rockies should swoop.

That’s a cold-hard business take on a scenario that would stink for DJ LeMahieu. I don’t want him to get left hanging by the market. As much as I would love to see him back with the Rockies, I want him to get the payday he deserves for his solid production the last six seasons. If he gets to maximize his value with something like a three-year deal, that won’t be with the Rockies. But if that doesn’t work out and he has to settle for a lesser deal, the Rockies should take advantage of that opportunity, and hopefully it would be a deal that isn’t rock-bottom for LeMahieu.

Let’s say the Rockies can sign LeMahieu to a two-year, $14 million deal. That’s just under the MLB Trade Rumors prediction of a two-year, $18 million deal or but far less than anything in the $30 or $40 million range that is not out of the realm of possibilities.

A deal like that would be really good value for a player of his caliber, and it’s at least maybe a less painful discount for LeMahieu if he does get left hanging by a cold market. That positions the Rockies to win now in a season when they certainly want to win now and, among other things, convince Nolan Arenado to stay long term.

The top objection to bringing LeMahieu back will be that he will block playing time for top prospects like Ryan McMahon, Garrett Hampson and Brendan Rodgers. That’s a fair objection, especially for the Rockies with their unfortunate habit of preferring veterans to young players. But it’s a different case with LeMahieu than it is with Ian Desmond or Gerardo Parra.

We know LeMahieu is good. Going back to 2015, he posted 2.4 WAR as he started to establish himself. He peaked with that stellar 5.3 WAR season in 2016 but then has held steady with 2.9 WAR and 3.0 WAR the past two seasons. A little bit of injury trouble this past season put a damper on things, but I feel comfortable saying that DJ is predictably good. On the other hand, we don’t know if McMahon or Hampson or even Rodgers is good, even if we have a lot of reason to assume they will be.

Approached correctly, the Rockies could earn themselves some flexibility by bringing LeMahieu back. They would have depth and versatility to cover for injuries or simply be more creative with lineups. They would also have options to make trades, either trading prospects to make a deal or trading LeMahieu in a mid-season deal. They wouldn’t have to be sellers to do so, though that type of trade would be quite a departure from the moves the Rockies are typically willing to make.

The risk would be that the Rockies bring LeMahieu back and simply block the young guys without doing anything creative. That would mean players like McMahon and Hampson going the way of Raimel Tapia or, you know, what happened to McMahon last year — too good for Triple-A but wasted as a bench player on the big league roster. I think the Rockies could get great value out of McMahon and Hampson as reserves, but Bud Black would have to show a willingness to use his bench players differently. The sting would be even more acute if it felt like Brendan Rodgers was ready and the Rockies simply kept his path to playing time blocked.

DJ LeMahieu has been one of the core players for the Rockies as they have developed into a consistent playoff contender. This is probably the end of that run. But if free agency does not reward LeMahieu for his good work and his market goes cold, and if the Rockies are willing to bring him back for a role other than obvious everyday starter, then the Rockies should consider bringing him back for another run with the team that he helped build.