AFTER ANOTHER LACKLUSTRE SPRING, JAYS FROM THE COUCH EXAMINES WHETHER OR NOT IT’S TIME FOR THE TORONTO BLUE JAYS TO MOVE ON FROM JUSTIN SMOAK AT FIRST BASE.
One of the more puzzling moves of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins’ tenure with the Blue Jays thus far has been rushing to re-sign first baseman Justin Smoak last July. The now 30-year old inked a two-year extension worth $8.5-million following a decent 2015 season (where he still hit only .226) splitting time at first base with Chris Colabello.
This investment displayed the confidence that the Blue Jays front office has in the Goose Creek, South Carolina native, despite a rather pedestrian first six seasons of his career.
To put this into perspective, the best full-season batting average Smoak has posted throughout those six seasons is .238, which came all the way back in 2013 with the Seattle Mariners. In recent years, the league average has hovered around .255, meaning that not only has Smoak failed to ever meet the average, but he has consistently been eons away from it.
Since signing the deal, Smoak has continued to fail to show signs of becoming the player many thought he would be after being selected 11th overall by the Texas Rangers back in 2008.
In 341 at-bats last season, Smoak posted a slash line of just .217/.314/.391, while hitting 14 home runs with 34 RBI’s. This was a bad season by even Smoak’s standards, as on top of all that, he was striking out a LOT more, 32.8% of the time in fact, which was much more than the league average of 21.9%. He also saw his defensive game fall off and was below replacement level with a WAR of -0.4.
Smoak’s struggles were made evident when the Blue Jays decided to leave him off their 2016 ALDS and ALCS 25-man rosters (although he did join the ALCS roster later in the series as an injury replacement for Devon Travis).
Nothing appears to have changed in the off-season for Smoak either, as despite a successful past few outings, he is still hitting just .224 with a .304 OBP in 49 spring training at-bats and has shown little patience or discipline in most of those plate appearances.
— Mike Wilner (@Wilnerness590) March 29, 2017
So this once again bodes the question, why did the Blue Jays rush to sign a career .223 hitter (who lacks the general speed, power or patience to make up for it) to a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal so early in the 2016 season?
In an interview with Sportsnet back in February, Atkins shed some light on the value the Blue Jays may still see in Smoak.
“We’re glad to have options,” said the team’s general manager. “One of our best teams could be if Justin Smoak is playing first base at a regular rate, playing every day for us. That would give us the most versatility, just to have that as an alternative.”
It is clear that the team’s front office sees value in Smoak because of the depth he brings to a position where they seriously lack it. For that reason, look for the Blue Jays to keep him around, at least until he either plays his way off the team or someone else plays their way onto it.
However, now at 30, Smoak has seemingly reached the peak of his potential, and is likely not going to emerge as a breakout star similar to the two names mentioned above.
For that reason, the Blue Jays may just be better off without him. While he may be the best defensive first baseman currently on the team’s roster, his presence in the field could be successfully replaced by a platoon of Bautista, Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales at first, all of whom are much better hitters than Smoak.
The move would open up a lot of playing time at the first base position for sub-par defensive players like the aforementioned Bautista, who will likely have to make the move to first sooner rather than later, and Morales, whose glove isn’t as bad as his reputation makes it out the be.
More capable defenders such as Melvin Upton Jr. and Ezequiel Carrera could now man the corners more often, along with Pearce and a call-up (who could take Smoak’s roster spot) such as Dalton Pompey or Darrell Ceciliani. The move could also allow 22-year old first baseman Rowdy Tellez to see his first major league action at some point in 2017.
While he will still make the opening day roster and may pencil in as the team’s starting first baseman, Smoak will have a short leash to begin the 2017 season.
3 things I didn't expect in 2017: Trump as POTUS, the Maple Leafs making the playoffs, & the Blue Jays starting Justin Smoak at first base.
— Ari Shapiro (@ari_shapiro) March 29, 2017
Whether the team chooses to trade him (which would be difficult) or release him, Smoak’s tenure with the Blue Jays could be nearing its end unless something drastically changes early on, and that could be a good thing in the grand scheme of things.
*FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: KEITH ALLISON- UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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