In 2016, Colorado Rockies second baseman D.J. LeMahieu produced a .348 batting average by season’s end. LeMahieu played in 146 games for the Rockies and sustained his average across 552 at bats, qualifying him for the National League batting title.
It was a pretty remarkable season for the 27-year-old infielder, who logged an impressive .911 OPS and earned a few MVP votes along the way (though, not nearly as many as fellow Rockies infielder Nolan Arenado). His potential as an offensive force was fully realized over the last two seasons in Denver, a process that began nearly a decade ago as a prospect in the Cubs’ system.
LeMahieu, like former Cubs middle infielders Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot before him, attended Louisiana State University and was a member of their 2008 and 2009 College World Series teams. The Cubs, then led by general manager Jim Hendry, selected LeMahieu in the second round (79th overall) of the 2009 June Amateur Draft.
He impressed quickly, finishing his 2009 campaign with the Peoria Chiefs and hitting .316. He continued his progress with High-A Daytona in 2010, slashing .314/.346/.386 in 135 games. It was evident LeMahieu was an excellent contact hitter, but he lacked power and discipline, hitting just five home runs and striking out 61 times compared to just 29 walks. Tim Wilken, then-Cubs Director of Amateur and Professional Scouting, spoke highly of LeMahieu after the season:
“He handled the bat really good in the Cape Cod League (last) summer,” Wilken said, “He hits the ball really well to the other side of the field. When you know you’ve got a guy that can hit the ball the other way that well… the hitting instructors will tell you that 9 times out of 10, this guy will have a chance to pull the ball with authority as he gets older and stronger.”
Chicago Cubs Online, who provided the quotes from Wilken, also provided their take on his defense at the time. LeMahieu’s natural position at the time was shortstop, and the author of the CCO piece suggested Starlin Castro and prospect Hak-Ju Lee (who was dealt to Tampa Bay for Matt Garza) would force him to play elsewhere:
“LeMahieu is solid fundamentally and is a smart player. He will more than likely get more time at second and third next season, with even less time at short. LeMahieu is decent a shortstop but lacks the range teams would like a shortstop to possess.”
Clearly, it didn’t take long for LeMahieu to make an impression in the Cubs’ scouting circles, but he soon became a name many fans would recognize, as well.
A March 6 split-squad spring training game against the Los Angeles Dodgers went into the tenth inning, tied at three. As most spring training matchups go, the game would end in a tie if neither team could get a run across home plate in the extra frame.
Bobby Scales (remember him?) got the tenth inning started with a bloop single, setting the table for LeMahieu to end the game and avoid the tie. Scales had decent speed, so it was easy to imagine a double down the line bringing him home for the victory.
LeMahieu would do a little better than that. Remember Wilken talking about him “pulling the ball with authority?” He sent a pitch from Dodger reliever Luis Vasquez into the left field stands for a walk-off two-run homer, giving the Cubs a 5-3 win.
Very few will remember a random split-squad of a poor baseball team, as the Cubs were entering 2011, in early March. But that afternoon in Mesa was significant for D.J. LeMahieu; he became a lot more than simply a random non-roster invite donning a number no real major leaguer would ever be caught dead wearing. He was on everyone’s radar now, and given the state of the club at the time, it was evident he’d be wearing pinstripes sooner rather than later.
That display of power was no fluke; he carried it into the start of his season with the Double-A Tennessee Smokies. Through 50 games, LeMahieu posted a slugging percentage of .492, with only two home runs but 15 doubles to his credit. He also hit .358, improving his strikeout and walk rates substantially with 22 punch outs and 11 free passes.
Meanwhile, the Cubs were a dismal 22-28 entering play on May 29, seven-and-a-half games out of first place. Utility infielder Jeff Baker, who never was quite able to repeat his impressive but flukey 2009 season, suffered a groin strain and was placed on the disabled list.
The Cubs were sold on LeMahieu’s performance for the Smokies, and believed he was the right fit to replace Baker in the interim. LeMahieu’s offensive numbers spoke for themselves, and having spent regular time at second and third base in Double-A, he offered enough versatility defensively to justify the move.
Just 22-years-old, LeMahieu made his major league debut on May 30, 2011 against the Houston Astros, grounding into a double play in his only at bat of the game. His initial stint with the club didn’t go very well: in 17 games (37 at bats), he struck out nine times and didn’t draw a single walk, collecting just nine hits (eight singles, one double) and one RBI. For as promising as his Double-A production was, it was clear LeMahieu needed more time for development on the farm.
So, following a three-strikeout game in a 6-3 loss against the Kansas City Royals on June 26, LeMahieu was sent to the Triple-A Iowa Cubs for some additional seasoning to his approach.
His time in Des Moines was merely okay; he slashed .286/.328/.366 with three homers, still averaging an encouraging 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It was abundantly clear that LeMahieu was going to continue to develop as a strict contact hitter who wouldn’t strike out much, but if the ball wasn’t falling in the right spots, his numbers would suffer.
LeMahieu was called back up to the Cubs on September 6 to finish out the year with the big league club, where he posted a meager .596 OPS in just 25 plate appearances. His performance with the Smokies in the first half of 2011 gave the Cubs a taste of who he could be as a pro ballplayer, but his .279/.319/.348 line from his May call-up to the end of 2011 indicated he still had work to do before becoming a full-time major league starter.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer joined the Chicago Cubs on October 25, 2011, and promised sweeping changes to the organization in order to build a consistent winning baseball team. It was evident from their introduction that they were going to follow their own blueprint for success, meaning nobody from the Jim Hendry era’s job, on-field or otherwise, was safe.
As the excitement of this regime change permeated throughout the North Side of Chicago and a dramatic World Series between the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals exhausted its seven-game maximum, LeMahieu quietly caught a second wind in the final months of 2011. Playing primarily third base for the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League, he slashed .302/.371/.389 with 21 RBI and 14 stolen bases in a 31-game stretch.
As Epstein and Hoyer began to set up shop at Wrigley Field, LeMahieu seemed like their kind of player: a patient contact hitter who was still developing his power. But the Cubs parted ways with longtime third baseman Aramis Ramirez in the offseason and needed to fill that hole; LeMahieu was expendable as the Cubs already had Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney up the middle. Not the most inspiring pairing, but the Cubs had no illusions of contending during the 2012 season.
This made Dan O’Dowd and the Colorado Rockies an ideal trade partner. The Rockies were searching for middle infield depth, while looking for a change of scenery for 26-year-old third baseman Ian Stewart. Stewart, the Rockies’ top prospect in 2005, hit 43 home runs between 2009 and 2010, but played just 48 games in 2011 and went homerless with a gruesome .464 OPS.
Stewart wasn’t the model of an Epstein/Hoyer player; his .323 career on-base percentage in 432 games didn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence. But the dude had power, and entering his age-27 season, there was no reason to think a change of scenery couldn’t help him out.
On December 8, LeMahieu and Hendry-era stalwart Tyler Colvin were sent to the Rockies for Stewart and pitching prospect Casey Weathers.
It has been easy for Cubs fans to lament this trade as a rare “failure” in the Epstein/Hoyer era and indeed, the Rockies got the better end of it: Stewart played 55 games with the Cubs and hit an underwhelming .201/.292/.335 before being stowed away in Iowa and eventually, under less-than-graceful terms, released in the middle of 2013. It’s also easy to forget—and crucial to remember —the Cubs acquired Stewart as a project with a 50/50 chance of success or failure. Kris Bryant, he is not, nor was he ever going to be.
The Cubs were also keenly aware of who they were trading away in LeMahieu. When one looks at his growth and development between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, his rapid ascension to the big league club and his ability to draw above-league average on-base numbers, Theo and Jed didn’t look at LeMahieu as a throwaway prospect; his talent was more than visible, and his performance in the Arizona Fall League validated that.
LeMahieu has lived up to the potential we saw back then and has since reached his ceiling with the Rockies. As a utility infielder between 2012 and 2013, he stepped up to the plate 681 times, putting together an underwhelming .698 OPS one some underwhelming Rockies teams. He was granted the starting job at second base in 2014. Despite his .663 OPS, he won a Gold Glove.
His renaissance came in 2015 when he earned an All-Star appearance following a .311/.365/.397 first half of the season, collecting 98 hits and keeping that strikeout-to-walk ratio around 2:1. In 2016, he won the batting title with a .348 average and brought his home run total up to 11, putting together a career-best .911 OPS and earning a few MVP votes.
It’s easy to see why people would consider the trade a “failure.” But that may be an unfair label for what happened between the Cubs and D.J. LeMahieu; if anything, it was bad timing.
LeMahieu didn’t break out until 2015, and given the amount of turnover on the Cubs’ roster between 2012 and 2014, it’s uncertain whether he would have been able to stick around anyway. If he did, there wouldn’t have been much room for him, if any at all: Starlin Castro still manned shortstop with middle infielders Javier Baez and Addison Russell waiting in the wings. Prior to 2015, Castro, Baez and Russell was a safer bet than LeMahieu. It still very well might be today.
The fact is, the trade was probably the best thing to happen for LeMahieu. There was little to no chance he could have become a household name as a member of the Cubs, but the Rockies gave him that opportunity and he took full advantage of it. The trade was the difference between D.J. LeMahieu being a floating, middling replacement-level infielder and potentially annual all star.
Hindsight is 20/20, and calling it a failure is an easy thing to do. But the Cubs’ World Series win happened with zero positive or negative impact as a result of the LeMahieu/Stewart trade; it’s a wash. Meanwhile, LeMahieu was able to evolve into one of the premier contact hitters in all of baseball. With a little perspective, it’s hard to look at the trade as anything other than a win.
Lead photo courtesy Chris Humphreys—USA Today Sports