Although the Yankees have 147 games remaining this year — their season is only 9.3% complete! — it already feels like they need some outside help. The injuries are mounting and, with CC Sabathia having returned over the weekend, it doesn’t seem like anyone is particularly close to coming back. The Yankees will be without several core players another few weeks.
April is typically way too early to consider trades, though things are different these days. There is a single July 31st trade deadline now and we are in baseball’s post-competitive era. Roughly one-third of the league is unabashedly tanking. Anything to improve amateur talent acquisition opportunities (part of it) and trim payroll (most of it) is encouraged and even celebrated in some circles.
The AL East rival Blue Jays are among those unapologetic tanking teams. Their pre-Vlad Guerrero Jr. lineup is inept — five times in 17 games this season they’ve been no-hit into the sixth inning — and the pitching staff beyond Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez is largely unrecognizable. Toronto is already selling off veterans:
- March 27th: Traded Kendrys Morales to the A’s for Jesus Lopez and international bonus money.
- April 2nd: Traded Kevin Pillar to the Giants for Derek Law, Alen Hansen, and Juan De Paula.
Law cleared waivers in February. Hansen was designated for assignment days prior to the trade. De Paula, who the Yankees sent to the Giants in the Andrew McCutchen trade, ranks 30th on MLB.com’s Blue Jays prospect list. Lopez is nowhere to be found on any prospect list. The Blue Jays saved $7.8M in those trades. That was their primary motivation.
It stands to reason the Blue Jays will trade more veterans in the coming weeks. Stroman could go, Sanchez could go, Ken Giles could go, Freddy Galvis could go, and Justin Smoak will very likely go. Smoak is an impending free agent and Toronto has a ready-made replacement in Rowdy Tellez. There’s no sense in keeping him, and that creates an opportunity for the Yankees, who could use a player like Smoak. Let’s talk it out.
1. He’s an upgrade over Greg Bird. Let’s be real here, the “better than Greg Bird” bar isn’t especially high these days. Bird is hitting .171/.293/.257 (58 wRC+) in the early going this season and he owns a .194/.287/.388 (80 wRC+) batting line in 522 plate appearances since Opening Day 2017. That is bad production for a defense first middle infielder. It is appalling for a bat only first baseman. That homer against Andrew Miller only goes so far.
By no means is Smoak a star. He is a solid player relative to his position who is a comfortably above-average hitter relative to the rest of the league. His last three seasons:
|PA||AVG/OBP/SLG||wRC+||HR||K%||BB%||wRC+ vs. RHP||wRC+ vs. LHP|
Real talk: If Greg Bird had put up numbers like Smoak’s from 2017-18, he would be talked about as a cornerstone Yankee and an extension candidate. I know like 46.347% of you clicked over here saying to yourself “ewww no not Justin Smoak,” but it’s true. Bird would’ve been un-damn-touchable with Smoak’s numbers.
Bird has not put up anything particularly close to Justin Smoak numbers though. Smoak is a switch-hitter who is most effective on the heavy side of the platoon, and he’ll draw walks without an excessive strikeout rate. Last week he reminded everyone he can turn around a 99 mph fastball and hit it out to the deepest part of the ballpark.
Also, there’s a defensive component here. Neither Bird nor Luke Voit is even average defensively at first base. The various numbers (I prefer Inside Edge at first base) indicate Smoak is average-ish at first. Average-ish qualifies as an upgrade for the Yankees, perhaps even a considerable one. Consider the lineup possibilities:
1. CF Brett Gardner
2. RF Aaron Judge
3. 1B Justin Smoak
4. DH Luke Voit
5. SS Gleyber Torres
6. 2B DJ LeMahieu
7. LF Clint Frazier
8. 3B Gio Urshela
9. C Austin Romine
1. CF Aaron Hicks
2. RF Aaron Judge
3. LF Giancarlo Stanton
4. 1B Justin Smoak
5. DH Luke Voit
6. C Gary Sanchez
7. SS Didi Gregorius
8. 3B Miguel Andujar
9. 2B Gleyber Torres
That “Healthy Yankees” lineup is almost certainly never going to happen, but a man can dream. The “Current Yankees” lineup though? Slotting in Smoak rather than Bird makes it look so much better. He fits in nicely between the two big righty bats, provides lineup balance as a switch-hitter, and oh yeah he actually provides some thump. That’s kind of a big deal. Bird to Triple-A and Smoak at first base is a clear multi-win upgrade.
2. He’s already familiar with the AL East. Is this is a reason to make a trade? Not necessarily, but it isn’t something to ignore either. This is Smoak’s fifth season with the Blue Jays (already?). He is an AL East veteran. He knows the ballparks and he knows the cities, and, most importantly, he knows the opposing pitchers. For the Yankees to get where they want to go this year, they’ll have to beat the Red Sox and Rays, and Smoak is familiar with those teams. That familiarity with the AL East could help his post-trade transition. It’s not nothing.
3. His contract is not onerous. Smoak reached some plate appearance salary escalators in his contract the last few years and will earn $8M this season. That’s all. The season is nearly three weeks old now and Smoak is still owed roughly $7.15M the rest of the way. Cot’s says the Yankees’ luxury tax payroll is at $226.7M right now, so they’re over the $226M second luxury tax tier. That $7.15M becomes $9.44M in real money when adding in the luxury tax.
Even then, the Yankees should be willing to add $9.44M to payroll in an effort to stay in the postseason race. The way things are going right now, I’m not sure they can expect to be within striking distance of the division title by time guys get healthy. The Yankees need help now. Not weeks from now. Also, the Yankees could get the Blue Jays to eat some money to make it work. They’ve done that with various trades in the recent past and could do it again. Point is, this is rental player with a reasonable salary. If Smoak doesn’t work for the Yankees financially, I’m not sure anyone will.
4. It shouldn’t cost much to get him. What other contending teams need a first baseman (or a DH)? I suppose the Athletics could get involved if Matt Olson’s recovery from hand surgery doesn’t go well. They already traded for Morales though, so probably not. Maybe the Nationals or Rockies? That’s pretty much it. The Blue Jays are likely hoping some contender gets hit with a first base injury to create a trade market for Smoak. The Yankees, if you haven’t noticed, have a need for him due to injuries.
What are the Blue Jays getting for Smoak beyond salary relief, realistically? Toronto is not getting anything close to a Paul Goldschmidt package for Smoak. Yonder Alonso was traded for a non-top-30 prospect over the winter. Steve Pearce was traded for a non-top-30 prospect last summer. C.J. Cron bounced around waivers over the winter. Smoak is a solid Major Leaguer, but I’m not sure the demand for first base only guys has ever been as low as it is right now.
The Yankees have pitching prospects in spades. They could put a Rule 5 Draft eligible 40-man roster bubble guy like Nick Nelson on the table, or a lower level arm like Juan Then or Rony Garcia, and make the Blue Jays say no. The alternative is continuing to pay Smoak while waiting (and hoping) for a market to develop, and possibly losing him for nothing as a free agent after the season. I think the price to get him would be very easy to swallow.
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My guess is the Blue Jays are motivated to trade Smoak. The sooner they move him, the more money they save — trading Pillar and his $5.8M salary for minimal return tells you they consider no salary too small to dump — and it also opens up first base for Tellez. I imagine their rest-of-season plan is effectively a three-man first base/third base/DH rotation with Vlad Jr., Tellez, and Brandon Drury. Smoak’s not a long-term piece. Those guys are (or might be, at least).
Last year’s J.A. Happ trade shows the Yankees and Blue Jays can get together for a trade. There’s no outdated “oh no we can’t trade within the division!” logic in play here. We know the Yankees and Blue Jays will trade with one another because we saw them do it recently. One way or another, Smoak’s time in Toronto is coming to an end soon. The Yankees need help now and Smoak would be an upgrade on both sides of the ball at first base without breaking the bank. It fits.