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Yankees Potential Trade Target: J.D. Davis

Could the Mets send their once-promising third baseman to their crosstown rivals?4

San Francisco Giants v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Some rare good news out of MLB yesterday. Owners and union met in Florida to begin negotiations in earnest, and the sides are expected to meet every day this week as the pressure of the looming season mounts. I don’t expect an agreement to be hammered out overnight, so that leaves us plenty of time to continue looking at players the Yankees could target once the lockout is lifted

Today, we return to the Mets and the potential players who could swap boroughs. Steve Cohen’s pre-lockout spending spree created a logjam on the Mets roster, generating uncertainty for some of their incumbents who had down years in 2021. Earlier this winter, Erin previewed two such players: Jeff McNeil and Dominic Smith. I’d like to add J.D. Davis to that pair as players the Mets may view as slightly more expendable after bringing in their replacements.

2021 Statistics: 73 games, 211 PA, .285/.384/.436, five HR, 23 RBI, 11.4% BB%, 32.2% K%, 130 wRC+, -3 OAA, 1.6 fWAR

2022 Contract Status: Entering second year of arbitration eligibility, projected to earn $2.5 million. Scheduled to reach free agency after 2024 season.

When J.D. Davis broke out in 2019 after joining the Mets from the Astros, it looked like he would join the cohort of Pete Alonso, Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil, and Dom Smith as the new wave of Mets stars — a young group that could form the backbone of a contender for years to come. Three years later, the sheen has come off most of that quintet, whether due to injury, inconsistency, or regression. Now with Rich Uncle Pennybags Steve Cohen in charge and appearing to prefer buying up talent rather than developing from within, Davis’ future in Flushing is in question.

Hours before the lockout, the Mets signed Eduardo Escobar — who is capable of playing second and third — to a two-year pact despite having two plausible starters in Davis and McNeil. They also signed a pair of outfielders and with Alonso entrenched at first, it’s hard to see how Smith gets much playing time. All three will get more expensive as their arbitration salaries rise, and while Cohen has shown he is not afraid to spend, at some point most teams will try to supplement high-earning stars with cost-controlled youngsters.

Luckily for the Mets, two of their top three prospects should be ready to take over once the new signings have played out their contracts. Brett Baty and Ronny Mauricio are both expected to graduate to the majors this season, with MLB Pipeline listing Baty as a third baseman who could end up in the outfield and Mauricio as a shortstop ticketed for the hot corner. Davis could find himself as the odd man out.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have something to offer a big league club. When healthy, Davis has been one of the most productive third basemen in the game. Since 2019, he owns the fifth-highest wRC+ (130) of all MLB third basemen with at least 850 plate appearances. In that breakout 2019 campaign, he sat in the 90th percentile or better in exit velocity, hard hit rate, xBA, xOBP, xSLG, and xwOBA.

The catch is, of course, the “when healthy” part. Davis landed on the 60-day IL after tearing two ligaments in his left hand in early-May and missed further time at the end of the season when the injury cropped back up. He ultimately underwent hand surgery after the season and expects to be ready for the start of this season.

Davis admitted the injury affected his production at the plate, with his bat speed taking the biggest hit. The numbers bear this out. Davis posted a career-worst 32.2 percent strikeout rate in 2021 driven by a 41 percent whiff rate. This elevated whiff rate owes almost entirely to swings and misses on pitches in the zone — Davis’ zone contact rate fell from over 75 percent from 2018-2020 to just 65.3 percent in 2021. With a fully-healed hand, perhaps Davis can recover that missing bat speed and start doing damage on the pitches he crushed prior to the injury.

Granted, the Yankees don’t have an explicit vacancy at third, but adding Davis could facilitate their stopgap shortstop mission. They played Gio Urshela at short down the stretch last season, and he’d be freed up for full-time duties there by putting Davis at the hot corner. I’ll admit this creates a weak defensive setup around the diamond with Urshela and DJ LeMahieu displaced from their primary positions and Davis’ and Gleyber Torres’ perennially poor glovework, but at the very least Davis is a far superior bat to add to the lineup over any of the other stopgap shortstop options.

The final and perhaps most difficult piece to this puzzle is whether the Mets would send anyone to their crosstown rivals. Trades between the two teams are few and far between and it’s likely Cohen would balk at any transaction that would strengthen the Yankees. If he were willing, however, the Yankees should pounce.