'We go where he goes': Rockies' DJ LeMahieu faces wild finish, free agency

DJ LeMahieu isn't his team's biggest star, but he's been the glue of Colorado's clubhouse. Still, amid a frenzied playoff chase, his future in Denver could be in doubt. Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

DJ LeMahieu ranks down the list of recognizable Colorado Rockies players, behind Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, Trevor Story, Carlos Gonzalez and Matt Holliday, to name a handful. For the uninitiated, LeMahieu's given name is "David John." He grew up in Michigan as a hardcore hockey fan, laced up his first pair of skates at an early age, and remains a devoted fan and season-ticket holder of the NHL's Detroit Red Wings.

Here's another piece of LeMahieu trivia courtesy of a Colorado teammate: He's the Rockies' player most likely to spur a bench-clearing incident if he ever ends up on the receiving end of a message fastball.

"Obviously, you don't want Trevor or Nolan or anybody to get hit," said Blackmon. "But if a guy on our team were to be plunked on purpose, I think you might piss off the most people in the Rockies' clubhouse if you went after DJ LeMahieu."

Since his arrival in Colorado from the Chicago Cubs as part of a four-player trade in 2011, LeMahieu has produced at a level that transcends his public profile. His resume includes two All-Star appearances, two Gold Gloves and a National League batting title in 2016. He ranks second among MLB second basemen to Jose Altuve with 817 hits and fourth behind Brian Dozier, Altuve and Ian Kinsler with 423 runs since his first full season at the position in 2014.

Now LeMahieu is about to discover how the Rockies -- and the industry -- value his contributions. In April, the Rockies retained a popular face of the franchise when they signed Blackmon to a six-year, $108 million extension. Over the next 14 months, they'll have to resolve the status of Arenado, a four-time All-Star and perennial MVP candidate who becomes a free agent in November 2019.

Between those two seminal contract negotiations, they'll contemplate the future of LeMahieu, who is eligible for free agency in November. If this turns out to be LeMahieu's final season in Denver, he's going to remember it as one wild, emotional ride.

The outlook was bright for the Rockies on Sept. 12, when LeMahieu hit a walk-off homer to beat Arizona and help Colorado maintain a 1½-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West. At the time, FanGraphs calculated Colorado's chances of making the postseason at 60 percent.

Then California beckoned, and the odds fell to 25 percent. The Rockies have dropped five of six in San Francisco and Los Angeles to fall 2½-games behind the Dodgers, and their best route to the postseason now lies with the wild card as they begin a pivotal three-game series in Arizona on Friday night. LeMahieu, who is 2-for-23 on the road trip, is feeling a tad wistful amid the realization that his time with Blackmon, Arenado and his other Colorado teammates could be nearing an end.

"The three of us have played pretty much every game together since 2013," LeMahieu said. "So, yeah, you kind of wish we could all play together as long as we wanted to. But that's when the business of baseball comes in, and it doesn't always work out that way.

"For me, this has always been a great place to play. I just feel like the situation with the team, the city and the fans allowed me to flourish. It was the right situation at the right time for me. I'll forever be thankful for that."

For a while now, it's been widely assumed in baseball circles that the Rockies would go in a different direction once LeMahieu's contract expires. Colorado's $141 million Opening Day payroll ranked 15th among the 30 MLB teams, and the Rockies have an opportunity to stretch their resources next year with two low-cost options. Brendan Rodgers, the third pick in the 2015 draft, recently earned a promotion to Triple-A Albuquerque at age 21. The Rockies also like what they've seen from Garrett Hampson, a 2016 third-rounder who's hitting .269 in 17 games as a September call-up.

But the decision is more complicated than it appears. Rodgers hasn't hit well in the Pacific Coast League, and he just turned 22 last month. Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich is also determined to keep an open mind because he understands the ramifications of cutting ties with a player who's been a popular teammate and an important part of the clubhouse dynamic for so many years.

"This has been a pretty continuous group, and the continuity has created some bonds in our clubhouse," Bridich said. "Ideally, that's what you're looking for. The guys are close and they play for each other, and they can lean on each other in tough times. DJ has been right in the middle of that. Personality-wise, he's on the quieter side, but he's set a great example to a lot of our players with his preparedness and the way he goes about his business.

"If fans knew how much we appreciate DJ and saw how much we care for him and how important he is to this team, they'd realize what a big factor he is. ... He sets the standard for us. We go where he goes, really."
Nolan Arenado

"We're taking things step by step, because you never know what can happen. We very much believe in the abilities of [Rodgers and Hampson] and even more guys in our system. But we're not in the business of gifting opportunities to young players just because they happen to be in the organization. They have to earn it."

LeMahieu's offensive production in Colorado is subject to the usual dissection. His overall numbers are skewed by his .330/.388/.450 career slash line at Coors Field. But over the past two seasons, he's hit 16 of his 23 homers on the road.

The team ethic referenced by Bridich is a product of shared experiences through time. Coors Field can be a boon to a hitter's statistics. But the Colorado teammates have bonded through the physical toll of 81 games each year at altitude and the challenge of going back and forth between sea level and baseball at 5,280 feet. Arenado, Blackmon and LeMahieu also have shared the frustration of having their numbers pooh-poohed because of the Coors Field factor, year after year.

LeMahieu takes anonymity to a different level because of his Nick Markakis-like aversion to self-promotion. He can get just as rowdy as his teammates when they take part in "slap shot regattas" with the hockey sticks they keep stored in the clubhouse. But his fun-loving side is rarely on display for public consumption. LeMahieu has a Twitter account, but he hasn't posted an original tweet since July 5, 2017, when he endorsed former teammate Mark Reynolds for an All-Star spot through MLB's Final Vote. While unfailingly polite with the media, he will never be mistaken for a quote machine.

"DJ is the quintessential Rockie who never gets heard from," Blackmon said. "He's the guy you take for granted, because he's always out there. Every ball that's hit to him is an out. He always has professional at-bats, and he's always doing the right thing. If someone gets hit by a pitch or someone throws a ball that's up and in on Nolan or someone slides hard, I always look to see how he's going to react, because he knows exactly what's going on. He's very in tune with the game.

"He's here to play good baseball and be a good teammate and win games, and that's what he's all about. He's not looking to change just because [Alex] Bregman looks into the camera after he hits a home run. That doesn't help you win games. DJ knows that, so he's not doing that."

LeMahieu's competitive edge doesn't rise to the level of, say, Chase Utley, but he has the same helping gene. When he missed time earlier this season with hamstring, thumb and oblique injuries, he routinely watched video for signs of opposing pitchers tipping their offerings or catchers giving away signs, and then passed along his insights to his teammates and the coaching staff.

While he's a man of few words, the words resonate. LeMahieu's fellow Rockies say he notices everything, and he's quick to offer encouragement or advice to hitters who whiff with the bases loaded and relievers who hang sliders at precisely the wrong time. "He's the same guy every day, good or bad," Arenado said. "That's something I wish I could do sometimes. Sometimes I get a little frustrated or upset, but with DJ, you can never tell.

"If fans knew how much we appreciate DJ and saw how much we care for him and how important he is to this team, they'd realize what a big factor he is. He brings a calmness to our team. But when he gets fired up, you know it's something serious. It's something he really feels in his heart, and we feed off that. We wouldn't be where we are now without him. He sets the standard for us. We go where he goes, really."

LeMahieu recently hired the Wasserman Media Group's Joel Wolfe, Arenado's agent, to handle his contract talks. While it's hard to predict what he might command on the open market, some recent free-agent contracts for middle infielders could provide a road map. Daniel Murphy's three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Washington Nationals and Zack Cozart's three-year, $38 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels are two that spring to mind.

LeMahieu's elite glove could be an additional selling point. He ranks second to St. Louis' Kolten Wong among second basemen with plus-17 defensive runs saved this season, and he's a lot more agile than his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame would suggest.

Arenado, who's watched LeMahieu make so many of those stellar plays from the left side of the Rockies' infield, will be paying attention as events play out this winter.

"We understand that it's a business," Arenado said. "It's above my pay grade. But I think our ownership and GM understand how important he is. When DJ was hurt, it was weird not having him on the field every day with us. It just didn't feel right. I think everyone on our team would agree that without him, it wouldn't feel right."

For the moment, it's time to stow the feelings and the speculation. The Rockies have 10 games left to salvage their season, and everything they know about LeMahieu tells them where his focus lies. He's too consumed with making sure they're still playing in October to worry about what happens in November and beyond.