There are two former Toronto Blue Jays players who could help the organization at first base, but there are some pros and cons to signing each player.
Imagine a scenario where Ross Atkins came busting through your door and said, “you have to decide between the Toronto Blue Jays signing Justin Smoak or Edwin Encarnacion this off-season. Tsutsugo is off the market and the team wants another first baseman.”
After you’re done asking yourself how the Rogers owned organization found your location, you start to look at the scenario presented before you with a magnifying glass and begin to analyze who would be the better fit in Toronto.
Looking at Smoak and Encarnacion, each player has not only spent time in a Blue Jays uniform, but they also found some of their best seasons while playing under the CN Tower.
Justin Smoak has donned a Blue Jays jersey for the past 5 seasons, being picked up on waivers from the Seattle Mariners during the off-season of 2014/2015. A first-round pick by the Texas Rangers in 2008, the slugging first baseman/DH never really lived up to the hype of being drafted in the first round. The Blue Jays took a flyer on him, and it still took a few years before Smoak truly busted onto the scene.
After producing slash lines of .226/.299/.470 and .217/.314/.391 in 2015 and 2016 respectively, Smoak had a breakout All-Star worthy season in 2018. The switch-hitting first baseman/designated hitter would slash .270/.355/.529 along with 38 home runs, 90 RBI’s, and 73 walks, which would be enough to earn himself the Blue Jays representation (only player from the team) at the 2017 All-Star game.
Since the 2017 season, Smoak has never produced a similar slash line nor has he belted 38 home runs like he did that season. He still produces with the long ball, smashing 20+ home runs in both 2018 and 2019, but the slash line has been on a downward trend since his All-Star year.
While the slash line might be trending downwards, his gold glove caliber defence is still on display. The 33-year-old was nominated for another gold glove this past season, unfortunately losing to Athletics first baseman Matt Olson. This is Smoak’s second nomination, where he was also nominated in 2018 but lost out to Olson once again.
While the bat seems to be trending downward, there is no denying that having Justin Smoak at first base would be a defensive benefit for a young and rebuilding team. He doesn’t make the super flashy plays, but he makes the routine play over and over, which makes you feel comfortable knowing he is on the field. Kind of like your sweatpants after a long day at work.
Fangraphs had Smoak at -3 defence runs saved this past season and -21 for his career, and his fWAR for 2019 came in only at 0.2, which is tough to look at when you consider he is over the age of 30.
While the batting line may be trending downwards, there is no denying that Smoaky’s leadership ability is on the upward trend.
On a young and rebuilding team, Smoak was one of the more veteran players in the locker room; a notion that the young prospects took to like moths to a flame.
It was Smoak who got Bo Bichette in the MLB’s concussion protocol because of how the veteran approached the younger player and it was Smoak who helped guide young 1st base prospect, Rowdy Tellez, through his first year in the MLB, as well as through his own personal issues off the field with his mother’s recent passing.
When the season was over, some of the prospects dawned #14 jerseys and asked Smoak to sign them, something the South Carolina active was more than willing to do. These are ‘stats’ you won’t find on the back of a baseball card, but something that may be tough to ignore moving forward.
Edwin Encarnacion came into the Blue Jays organization as an ‘under the radar’ acquisition.
The slugging first baseman/designated hitter was a throw-in player when the Toronto Blue Jays dealt Scott Rolen to the Cincinnati Reds in 2019, a deal that hung on the Jays taking on Encarnacion.
Like Smoak, it also took Encarnacion a few years to get his swing down in Toronto, with the 2011 season being his ‘breakout’ year. He would slash .272/.334/.453 and would see his position start to change from being a third baseman to a first baseman/designated hitter.
Encarnacion would earn three All-Star appearances during his time in Toronto (2013, 2014, and 2016), and would go down in Blue Jays history when he belted the walk-off home run during the 2016 Wild Card game against the Baltimore Orioles.
He would eventually leave the team during the 2016/2017 off-season when he signed with the Cleveland Indians during free agency. While many fans wanted Edwin to return to the team, Edwin reportedly turned down a similar contract from the Blue Jays to test free agency, which prompted management to sign Kendrys Morales. With Morales now as the 1B/DH, this signalled an end to Encarnacion’s time in T.O.
Known for his power in the batters box, Encarnacion smashed 239 home runs and 679 RBI’s during his 8 years in a Blue Jays uniform. His 127 RBI’s in 2016 led the American League and would make Encarnacion one of the most feared power hitters during his time.
Encarnacion would see his defensive time split between first base and the designated hitter, allowing Justin Smoak and Chris Colabello (remember him?) time to man first base until his departure. The Dominican slugger was an average defender at best, with Fangraphs having Encarnacion as -20 career defensive runs saved when at 1st base. He was even worse when he played at third base, which is why the Blue Jays promptly switched him to the other side of the diamond during the 2013 campaign.
In 2019, he finished with 34 home runs, 86 RBI, and a 2.5 fWAR, which is pretty impressive for a player that many fans would count out given his age (37). I honestly had to do a double-take to make sure I was looking at the right year, given how he bounced around a few teams this past season.
At 37 years old, Encarnacion still has some power in his bat but his defensive days are most likely behind him. For his career, Encarnacion has spent most of his time as the designated hitter and was mostly used in this role when he played with the Indians and the New York Yankees. He can play 1st base and is an average fielder, but I wouldn’t expect a team to make him the starter for this position given his age and his success as a DH.
Although his age is getting up towards retirement for many players across the league, there is no doubting that Encarnacion can still produce in the MLB when he steps into the batter’s box.
Ross Atkins is standing in your kitchen and you need to make a decision.
Do you think Rowdy Tellez is the future at first base and needs some veteran leadership?
Do you think the Blue Jays need another power bat in the lineup who can platoon at first base when needed?
In the end, the decision revolves around how you view the rebuild. The Toronto Blue Jays are a young team, and signing Smoak or Encarnacion is most likely not going to be a long term deal; a stopgap for the next few seasons to keep the team competitive while finishing the rebuild.
I personally think Smoak would be the better option.
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The platoon he would create with Tellez at first would keep the power in the lineup but still allow Tellez the opportunity to develop into a legitimate player by keeping him on the diamond or in the batter’s box almost every game (keyword being opportunity because the jury is still out on him being the future). The team is in a rebuild, and if we are truly going to embrace this philosophy, we need to keep the prospects on the field and allow them to develop and see if they are going to part of the core of players on the field moving forward. The fact Smoak is a switch hitter is also not a bad option to have in the back pocket as a designated hitter or a pinch hitter if need be.
I also like Smoak’s leadership and connections that he already has in the Blue Jays clubhouse, which can be a real benefit to a young organization. The way the younger players gravitate towards him creates a better clubhouse environment, which I find is important for a team that will be happy to hit the .500 mark next season.
I can also see Smoak being a cheaper option than Encarnacion, which saves the team some money but keeps power in the lineup and a consistent fielder at first base (when he does play defensively).
Regardless of what my thoughts are, there is an argument to be made that could see either one of these players return back to Toronto, as well as reasons to not bring back both players whether it be hitting ability, age, rebuilding, etc.
I leave it with you Blue Jays fans. Ross Atkins still needs an answer and he’s starting to make himself a sandwich.