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Yankees Potential Trade Target: Alek Thomas

The young Arizona outfielder is a risky but intriguing option for the Yankees’ left field vacancy.

Syndication: Arizona Republic Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

As we wait for the next major free agent shoe to drop, all we can do is speculate on who some of the Yankees options might be at whatever position they don’t fill with another nine-figure acquisition. At the moment, all eyes are on Carlos Rodón, a signing that would leave left field as the last outstanding hole on the team’s roster. Where have we not yet gone in our speculation on who might succeed Joey Gallo and Andrew Benintendi?

One place we might turn our attention is the Arizona Diamondbacks outfield. Arizona can be a confusing, difficult-to-read organization. They handed the reigns to Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart and signed off on making Zack Greinke the highest-paid right-hander ever. They emerged from the wreckage of late-era La Russa to post three consecutive winning seasons, including a surprising 2017 Wild Card run. The Jazz Chisholm-for-Zac-Gallen swap remains one of the most fascinating trades in recent memory, but the Madison Bumgarner contract looked bad the moment the ink was dry, and in 2021, despite actually trying to compete, they managed to out-tank the tankers to the tune of 110 losses.

All that’s to say that the Diamondbacks trading 23-year-old Alek Thomas, their 2018 second-round pick and consensus number two prospect entering 2022, isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Consensus top-10 league-wide prospect Corbin Carroll also plays the outfield and also reached the majors in 2022, and former top prospect Daulton Varsho established himself with 27 homers while spending roughly 70 percent of his playing time in the outfield. Arizona has no shortage of talented outfielders — Ketel Marte has played there extensively in recent years, too — and trading Thomas might be their best path to shoring up other needs until they’re ready to throw a blank check at another free agent.

A Yankees fan looking at Thomas’ rookie year numbers might wonder why one would want to ask. While his teammate Carroll hit the ground running at the game’s highest level, Thomas endured a slog of a rookie year, slashing .231/.275/.344 (71 wRC+) with just 26 extra base hits (eight homers) in over 400 PAs. His defense graded out as elite in center field by all metrics, and his speed was top of the line, but again, the bat was really bad: By wRC+, only teammate Geraldo Perdomo and erstwhile top prospects Nick Senzel and Victor Robles were worse in the NL.

The bad news? The underlying numbers are pretty bad too. His exit velocities and barrel rates (3.8 percent) scrape the bottom of the bucket. He chases more than league average, pulls the ball less than average, and only Christian Yelich put it on the ground more often than Thomas’s 58 percent figure. Viewed one way, he’s nothing but a big bucket of red flags.

Viewed another way, he’s also just a few adjustments away from perhaps turning into one of the game’s most dynamic sparkplugs — Benintendi if he ate a Star power-up in Mario Kart, if you will. His aggressive, explosive swing is both the source and salvation of his questionable batted ball profile, but it’s easy to see why scouts would fall in love with it. Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen compared it to Jose Altuve’s prior to the 2022 season, and in my opinion, the shades are easily visible in his quick-twitch scissor-kick reaction to this mistake breaking ball on the inner half of the plate:

There are surface-level indications that even if Thomas didn’t improve his batted ball profile at all, he’d still likely see better results his second go-around in The Show. Even as BABIPs have dipped to historic lows lately, Thomas’ .263 mark was a low-end outlier. For a grounder-heavy lefty with 95th-percentile sprint speed, it’s extraordinarily low. Also taking the incoming shift ban into account — he was shifted in just under half of his plate appearances, seeing a 21-point drop in wOBA with it on — even equally poor contact should lead to better results in 2023.

That should be a building block for other second-year improvements. The grounder-heavy batted ball profile is problematic, but it’s also not super out of line with Thomas’ minor league production, either. That’s simply the kind of hitter he is, and in some ways, his swing is a dying breed in the majors: aggressive and with minimal loft, designed for sharp, line drive contact to all fields.

Again, think Benintendi with just a bit more pep in his step. With Aaron Judge back in the fold, the Yankees don’t need another superstar to round out their lineup, as nice as it would be to make a major splash. Thomas’ contract status — another five-plus years until free agency — makes him attractive for the purposes of Hal’s revulsion to the CBT line, and as a left-handed speed threat who knows how to limit strikeouts, he’d make a good counter-balance to a lineup core that skews heavily right-handed with a fair amount of swing-and-miss.

That ability to avoid punchouts won’t necessarily always come with a healthy serving of weak contact, either. Though Thomas’ average exit velocity ranked in just the 21st percentile of the league, his 110 mph maximum exit velo is all the way up in the 75th percentile. It hasn’t shown up in games yet, but there’s a not-insignificant amount of raw pop in his bat. He slugged near or above .500 for much of his minor league career with mid-50s ground ball rates, and part of the appeal of his dynamic swing is that it makes one think he’ll be able to crush enough mistake pitches to elevate his overall profile.

It remains to be seen whether he’ll make the necessary adjustments. He was overwhelmed by big league fastballs last season, and his ability to take advantage of all the things I just brought up will depend on whether he stops getting beat (-10 Baseball Savant run value) by four-seamers. If he were inserted into a low-pressure role in the Yankees lineup, it might be reasonable to anticipate him seeing more fastballs and more pitches in the zone, which could be a good or bad thing for his aggressive approach.

It would be a risky acquisition, assuming a player of note goes the other way. It’s still anybody’s guess how the rest of the trade and free agent market will shake out, though, and if the Yankees find themselves in a position where they have to fill their last offensive hole by dealing from a strength, the Diamondbacks outfield might be an intriguing source of upside.