Blue Jays have choices at first with Smoak and Colabello
By Samuel Bruce
The 2015 Season saw the Blue Jays use Justin Smoak as their primary First Baseman before Chris Colabello earned an edge in the playoffs. Who should win the full-time job in 2016?
While the offseason can provide constant changes, the Blue Jays as a team are in a tremendous spot to compete as is. They’re expected to add pitching in both the rotation and pen, but their offensive starters will likely remain very close to the 2015 product. Given that the team has three first basemen if you count Edwin Encarnacion, either Smoak or Colabello figures to see a more limited share of the playing time.
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During the 2015 season Smoak put up a slash line of .226/.299/.768 with 44 runs, 59 RBI’s, and 18 home runs in 132 games. In 101 games, 46 of which came in the outfield, Colabello put up a line of .321/.367/.886 with 55 runs, 54 RBI’s, and 15 home runs. A surface analysis of this would suggest that Colabello should be the clear starter. However, Smoak had a fielding percentage of .995 with a 4.6 UZR/150.
Smoak has emerged as a high quality defensive player, and while he was originally projected to be an even stronger offensive contributor, a run saved is a run earned. While Colabello takes the offensive edge from 2015, Smoak takes the defensive. The Blue Jays have to be confident with the caliber of defense the infield has playing between Smoak and Donaldson. Confidence that is still relatively recent.
So while both players have excelled at the opposite ends of the discussion, what can the Blue Jays expect each of these men to produce next year? Fangraphs STEAMER predicts that Smoak will have a similar year at the dish, putting together a line of .234/.312/.726 with 45 runs, 48 RBI’s, and 15 Home Runs. Smoak projects to contribute right around the same levels, with the chance to improve his Average and On Base Percentage.
Colabello, on the other hand, projects to fall back to reality with a slash line of .263/.319/.767 while contributing 43 runs, 48 RBI’s, and 14 Home Runs. This is a drastic decrease from 2015 and should serve as a warning to the Jays and the fans that his 2015 success (and .411 BABIP) aren’t likely sustainable in the long run. The projections between the two are close, but favor Smoak.
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With this in mind the Blue Jays need to be aware that their pinch hitting game will be scarcer. With Matt Hague now moved to Japan and Dioner Navarro unlikely to return as a Free Agent, the Blue Jays do have a certain offensive need. Colabello served as a fine bat off the bench in 2015, and may be best in that roll in 2016. With long term projectionspotentially favoring Smoak, it would seem that keeping 2015’s platoon order would be the best course of action.
The Blue Jays should be satisfied with this as well. They keep a strong defensive player at first, and keep a threatening bat to use in situations that call for a little more leverage. This should also not be seen as a slight on Colabello. He could make a fine starting first baseman if necessary, but the Blue Jays needs may demand that he be content with limited fielding. This course of thinking also allows the Blue Jays to be creative. It not only opens up Colabello as a trade chip, but does, and quite controversially, open up Encarnacion up as well (though he does hold 10 & 5 rights and, thus, a no-trade clause that would need to be waved).
This is not to suggest that the Blue Jays should look into this, merely that Colabello has the makings of a decent Designated Hitter and proved them with an option, whether that be with the Jays or another team. Both Smoak and Colabello are fine players and excellent members for a Jays team that looks to remain atop the AL East. Once opening day rolls around, the Jays should turn to Smoak for fielding duties, and let Colabello be the bat off the bench.