Blue Jays: Rowdy Tellez’s emergence could change Toronto’s first base future

After struggling through the 2017 season and losing a lot of his prospect lustre, the Blue Jays are starting to see the real Rowdy Tellez again and it could change things at first base for the future.

One of the best stories of the later part of this season for the Blue Jays has been the emergence of Rowdy Tellez after his September call-up. The California native earned the promotion after a solid season in Triple-A Buffalo, and he’s been mashing the ball since arriving in Toronto with the Blue Jays.

So far he’s slashed .444/.474/.944 in his first 18 at bats as a big leaguer, picking up a whopping six doubles already, as well as adding a home run and four RBIs. The sample size is ridiculously small, but it’s been exciting to watch him look like he belongs at the highest level, especially after a bit of a rocky road to the big leagues.

There was a time a couple years ago that many scouts would have predicted he’d be the starting first baseman long before the end of the 2018 season. I remember chatter about his potential to challenge Justin Smoak for the job during spring training of 2017, but then Smoak proceeded to have a career year and re-define his worth on the diamond, and his value to the Blue Jays’ lineup.

Tellez meanwhile was sent back to Triple-A Buffalo that year and proceeded to have the worst professional season of his career. Last season he slashed just .222/.295/.333 with six home runs and 56 RBI in 122 games played. The numbers were down across the board, and after being a significant asset in Double-A in 2016 it looked like Tellez wasn’t able to handle Triple-A pitching, let alone at the highest level in the big leagues.

We now know that Tellez was dealing with a host of personal issues last year, and it’s a near certainty that it affected his performance on the diamond. Even John Gibbons said as much when asked about his young first baseman the other day, even going as far as to say that he “probably should be”, when asked about whether the 23 year old had worked himself back into consideration as the first baseman of the future in Toronto.

For the immediate term, Justin Smoak is the Blue Jays first baseman, and Gibbons said as much when he was talking about Tellez’s future in the video above. However, Smoak has just the eight million dollar option on his contract left, and could be a free agent as soon as the winter of 2019. The Blue Jays might choose to extend him after his last couple years of success, but a lot could depend on Tellez’s performance and possible fit at the highest level.

With that in mind, it’s entirely possible the Blue Jays’ front office chooses to shop Smoak this winter. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins could be a little hesitant to let another slugger leave without much in the way of compensation like they saw with Josh Donaldson, so they may want to trade him early and guarantee a prospect return, assuming the proper offers come in. Smoak isn’t going to bring the type of return that a peak-Donaldson would have, but it’s possible that a rival GM sees enough value to make it worth the Blue Jays while before the start of the 2019 campaign.

Even if Smoak is a very good fit on the roster next year, the team is highly unlikely to compete anyway, and could benefit from giving Tellez an opportunity. They could also use a combination of others like Yangervis Solarte (if he’s not traded as well), or others like Kendrys Morales or Russell Martin. They could also look at the free agent market, which usually has several affordable options looking for regular playing time on a reasonable salary.

Tellez may also make sense as a short term option for another reason. The Blue Jays are all but certain to use Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at third base at some point early next year. There are several writers and baseball pundits who believe he’ll ultimately have to shift across the diamond to first anyway. While I believe they’ll give Guerrero every shot to earn the third base job and establish himself there as a big leaguer, I doubt the front office wants to lock up Smoak for the long term without knowing Guerrero can stick at the hot corner. That fact could play into Tellez’s chances at getting a shot at the job as well.

I’m not saying that it’s going to happen or that I even think it’s likely, but if Tellez can continue to hit with authority to close out the season then it’s possible the front office looks at the situation a lot more closely.