Toronto Blue Jays 2016 Year in Review: Justin Smoak

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Aug 15, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak (14) reacts to striking out during the eighth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 15, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak (14) reacts to striking out during the eighth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Toronto Blue Jays signed 1B Justin Smoak to a two-year extension (’17-’18) mid-season that included a 2019 team option

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Justin Smoak was a can’t-miss MLB prospect that projected to be a cleanup hitter managers built their rosters around.

That hasn’t panned out, but to his credit, Smoak has managed to stay in the league and, as the Blue Jays have seen themselves in recent years, late-blooming power bats are not an unknown phenomenon.

In his second season with the Blue Jays, Smoak’s batted ball profile normalized after a rather fortunate debut in 2015. Regardless, with uncertainty at the 1B/DH position going forward, the Blue Jays chose to lock up Smoak for at least two seasons with an extension in July.

The Good

One area where Smoak did improve this year (compared to 2015) was his on-base percentage. This was due to his walk rate jumping from 8.8% to 11.7%. Smoak will never be a player that hits .290+, but if he can continue to find on-base opportunities via the base on balls, then his value will have a much stronger floor going forward. This also helps to offset his heavy strikeout rates.

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When Chris Colabello was handed his 80-game suspension early in the season, Smoak stepped in as an everyday starter with Edwin Encarnacion manning the DH position full-time. After overcoming a slow April, it looked like Smoak was about to surge towards a career year in May as he hit .309 (.896 OPS) with five home runs in 104 plate appearances.

He does offer some value to the lineup as a switch-hitter, and hit right-handed pitching noticeably better. With the Blue Jays needing to add at least one bat to the 1B/DH dynamic at the MLB level — either internally or externally — perhaps there is some level of value in platooning.

The Bad

Smoak finished the season with a -0.1 Wins Above Replacement per FanGraphs, which is a value easily found on the waiver wire each and every spring.

What sunk Smoak’s value more than usual this season was his defence, something that he is typically lauded for. Smoak posted a UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) of -1.6, down from a 2.2 mark in 2015. He also saw his DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) fall from +4 last year to -5. There’s a sound argument to be made that Encarnacion was an equal or better defensive option when compared to Smoak, which led the Blue Jays to starting Encarnacion at first for much of the playoff run.

In 2015, Smoak’s 16 home runs gave Toronto fans reason for optimism that he could chase down 25 in a full-time role. That number was achieved with a 25.4% HR:FB ratio, however, meaning that 25.4% of Smoak’s fly balls went for home runs. Such a level is not normal or sustainable, and when it fell back to 17.7% this season, his power stats came down with it.

As part of their evolution into 2017, the Blue Jays are trying to add left-handed bats, speed on the bases, and a more contact-heavy approach. Smoak doesn’t address those issues very deeply, as even his switch-hitting tool is limited by strikeouts. The potential does remain, though, for Smoak to enjoy a modest breakout. Despite his many doubters, stranger things have happened.

The Future

Justin Smoak’s contract lines up as follows:

  • 2017:  $4.125M
  • 2018:  $4.125M
  • 2019:  $6M team option ($250k buyout – option $ can increase based on ’17-’18 PA’s)

That final team option year is a nice card for the Blue Jays to have in their hand in case Smoak’s value does finally click. For the time being, and until the Blue Jays address the position, Justin Smoak is the starting first baseman.

By opening day 2017 it’s likely he has been pushed back to a role similar to this season’s — part time or slightly above. The Blue Jays will survey the free agent and trade markets, and top power prospect Rowdy Tellez could make a push for playing time some time this season.

Next: Blue Jays must be aggressive with backup catcher search

Other Toronto Blue Jays ‘Year in Review’ Profiles:  

Michael Saunders   Ryan Goins   Ezequiel Carrera   Joe Biagini
Chris Colabello   Aaron Loup   Kevin Pillar   Melvin Upton Jr.

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