Justin Smoak signed a one-year, five million dollar deal with the Milwaukee Breweres on Thursday, making it clear the Blue Jays were ready to move on.
When it comes to free agency, we don’t always what the Blue Jays have done in their pursuit of roster upgrades, or how serious they when it comes to making contract offers. However, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the Blue Jays were ready to move on from Justin Smoak, even if there were reports of mutual interest in a reunion.
On Thursday, the former Blue Jay slugger signed a one-year deal with the Milwaukee Brewers for a grand total of five million dollars. He’ll actually make just four million next season, but his contract includes a club option for 5.5 million in 2021, and carries a buyout of one million, bringing the guarantee to five million.
Surely the Blue Jays could have beaten that offer if they wanted to, especially since they have payroll room and paid the man eight million in 2019, but the fact that they let him go to the NL contender tells us a few things.
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We already know that the Blue Jays want to give Rowdy Tellez a real audition at first base next season, and bringing back Smoak would have made that a little difficult. They could have split time between first base and designated hitter, but the Blue Jays would also like to use the latter more in order to give their young guys a day off of their legs on defence, while still keeping their bat in the lineup. It’s entirely possible that the Blue Jays just felt like they couldn’t give Smoak enough of a guarantee of playing time.
I would be surprised to see the Blue Jays enter next season without some sort of reinforcements at first base, and fortunately there are still several options on the market that could fit the bill. There have been rumours suggesting the Blue Jays could be interested in a reunion with Edwin Encarnacion at the right price, and GM Ross Atkins has even gone as far as saying that letting the slugger get away would qualify as his biggest regret while working in Toronto. It could actually work reasonably well, as Encarnacion would likely DH most of the time, but could also handle first base duties. The options in a similar mold could include guys like Eric Thames, C.J. Cron, and potentially several others.
Moving on from Smoak could also tell us that the Blue Jays’ front office is reasonably comfortable with their in-house options, although I’m not sure they should be. Brandon Drury can cover first base if necessary, and Cavan Biggio can slide over there from second as well, although neither should be used there on a regular basis. The same goes for Billy McKinney, who the Jays experimented with at the cold corner in 2019. I also really can’t see Teoscar Hernandez being an answer, even if there have been reports that the Blue Jays could try him out at a new position.
It’s also widely assumed that the Blue Jays are reluctant to make any kind of long-term commitment to first base, at least until they know whether or not Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can stick at third base in the long run. That obviously wasn’t a factor in the decision about bringing back Smoak, but it likely has played a part in some of the off-season discussions. For example, Josh Bell could be available from the Pirates and he would bring an impact bat, but it would be hard to commit to him and Guerrero Jr. at the infield corners just yet.
Above all else, I’m guessing that Smoak signing with Milwaukee boils down to three factors, and this is just my speculation. First, the veteran probably wants to chase a World Series ring before his career is over, and that’s not going to happen in Toronto over the next season or two. He’ll be playing meaningful baseball with the Brewers, and hopefully he’ll get a chance to return to the playoffs as he did with the Blue Jays in 2015 and 2016.
Secondly, the Blue Jays are still reportedly interested in Hyun-Jin Ryu, and/or improving their starting rotation beyond what they’ve already done. It might be as simple as wanting to make sure they have the money to add to the rotation first, and committing even five million to Smoak at this stage of the off-season was too early. Most guys like him wait until later in the off-season to sign because of the way the first base market moves, but Smoak saw a good opportunity and jumped on it. You can’t blame him at all, and if this was Atkins’ rationale, I could accept it.
More than all of that though, I really think it boils down to a fresh identify for this team that’s been built by Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins. Smoak was among the very last pieces to remain from those previous playoff teams, and the club now has a completely new identity with no direct ties to those teams. Bringing in a fresh face helps too, especially when trying to change the narrative from a 67-win season like they had last year.
At the end of the day, Smoak just doesn’t really fit with the Blue Jays plans at the moment, and that’s okay. I’m sure I can speak for all Blue Jays fans when I say I wish him well, and I’m glad to see him sign in the National League.