The Blue Jays may hand the first base job to Rowdy Tellez in 2020, but there’s a strong argument to be made that Justin Smoak’s glove is still needed in Toronto.
Free agency will open next week now that the World Series has come to an end, and with it Justin Smoak will be looking for a new team for the first time in a while.
The veteran first baseman has made his home in Toronto since the beginning of the 2015 campaign and during that time became one of the more popular players on the team, especially over the last couple of seasons. He’s one of the few remaining veterans from the playoff squads of 2015 and 2016, and with Devon Travis and Ryan Tepera on the sidelines for most of 2019, he was really the only face left to tie the two eras together.
Smoak quickly became a veteran leader in the clubhouse, and from all accounts he’s been a very good one as well. His slash line of .208/.342/.406 with 22 home runs and 61 RBI may suggest a down year from the 32 year old, but I think it’s fair to say that he wasn’t allow to stay in a groove the same way he had in years past. He only played in 121 games, finding the bench in favour of youngsters like Rowdy Tellez so the coaching staff could offer some experience to their young players, and also get a chance to evaluate them.
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Instead of being upset about being benched in favour of his potential replacement, Smoak took things in stride and offered a lot of advice to his young teammates, perhaps no one more than Tellez himself. Tellez credited Smoak with helping him adjust to life in the big leagues, and even mentioned him as someone who reached out during his mother’s health struggles and ultimate passing. He’s been a consummate leader and professional throughout his time in Toronto, and it’s a bit of a shame that his contract has come to an end.
That said, I think the Blue Jays should seriously consider bringing him back, even if they plan on giving Tellez the bulk of starts at first base. For all the reasons I’ve already mentioned and more, Smoak is a great fit going forward with this team, especially because he could probably be had on a one or two year deal, and likely one that won’t be terribly expensive.
Perhaps the more important reason I think the Blue Jays should bring him back would be his defence, which could play a very important role in the development of guys like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and more. Having a veteran like Smoak at first base is a big plus for a young and developing infield, and he’s proven to be near the top of his field at the craft, even earning a nomination for the Gold Glove award at first base this year.
I don’t mean to pick on Tellez by any means, but he’s a weak defender even when you’re not comparing him to Smoak, and that could make a big difference in 2020 when it comes to the development of this team, especially on the glove side. It sounds like a trivial thing over the course of a long, 162 game season, but a guy like Smoak will turn a lot of errors into outs for his youthful teammates, and that goes a long way toward their confidence and mental development. Look at how much that messed with Lourdes Gurriel Jr. as a second baseman early in 2019.
That’s not to say that Tellez is some sort of brick-handed buffoon at first base, but he doesn’t have the soft hands of his veteran mentor, and I don’t think he would even object to the Blue Jays bringing him back. Smoak would also provide a safety net for Tellez in the event that he needs to spend more time in Buffalo as he did last season, and could be a part-time DH, especially as a switch-hitter.
It likely wouldn’t equate to any more than the 120 or so games he played in 2019, but it’s hard to say what’s out there in the free agent market for Smoak anyway. It hasn’t been kind to free agent first baseman in recent years, and the Blue Jays might be able to benefit from that when it comes to negotiating with their former slugger. Perhaps the two sides have already resolved to go their separate ways, but I think that could be a short-sighted decision on the part of the Blue Jays. For now, I think having a steady glove at first base is more important than a lot of people give it credit for, especially with a developing young core, and Smoak could provide just that.