Blue Jays: Former fan favourite excelling in Japan this year

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 28: Justin Smoak #14 of the Toronto Blue Jays takes an at bat during the first inning of their MLB game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre on September 28, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 28: Justin Smoak #14 of the Toronto Blue Jays takes an at bat during the first inning of their MLB game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre on September 28, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images) /

When the Toronto Blue Jays playoff dreams ended back in 2016, the writing was on the wall on where the organization was planning on heading towards with the postseason in the rearview mirror. Former general manager Alex Anthopoulos had moved on and a new regime had entered the season prior in the form of CEO/President Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins. While the Blue Jays contended in the playoffs in just their first year in office, the organization was heading towards a rebuild, one that would see every veteran player shipped off or not re-signed over the next two to three years.

A few names that immediately stick out on the list are Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Kevin Pillar, and Russell Martin, all of whom played a big part in the Jays playoff chances and were now being shipped off to new homes to make way for a new generation of talent, both from within and from outside the organization.

One name that was also in the hearts of many Blue Jays fans was switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak, one of the last veteran casualties of a team heading towards the rebuilding waters with no spot for him on the lifeboat.

Drafted by the Texas Rangers in the first round of the 2008 amateur draft, Smoak struggled to find his place on a major league roster, finding himself traded to the Seattle Mariners two years later and never living up to the expectations one would expect from a first-round draft selection. The South Carolina native would eventually be put on waivers by the Mariners in the 2014/2015 off-season after five years with the organization with the Blue Jays taking a chance on the first baseman.

What would progress from that waiver wire claim was five seasons where the 6’4″ power hitter would finally gain some traction, slashing .237/.338/.459 with 117 home runs, 321 RBI, and a .795 OPS in 684 games and 2400 plate appearances. Defensively, Smoak would play 510 games at first base, earning a -11 defensive runs saved while also spending some time as the club’s designated hitter. Overall, he was a dependable player that won over the fans in Toronto, evident by the “Smoaky” chants you would hear throughout the game even if he wasn’t the most consistent hitter in the batting lineup.

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In the 2019/2020 off-season, Smoak ended up leaving the Blue Jays for the Milwaukee Brewers, signing a one-year deal worth 5 million dollars. His tenure as a member of the Brew Crew would be short-lived, as he would struggle to a .186/.262/.381 line with a .682 OPS before being designated for assignment in early September, with the slugger finishing the season with the San Francisco Giants before becoming a free agent once again.

This past off-season, Smoak decided to take his talents overseas, reportedly signing a two-year deal with the Yomiuri Giants of the Nippon Professional Baseball league earning roughly 3 million a season. The deal made sense at the time for Smoak, as the offensive-minded player had struggled last year to get on base and the free-agent market was not very kind to struggling veteran players, with many having to sign later into Spring Training on minor league contracts or are still free agents to this day (with a few outliers of course).

So far into the 2021 campaign, Justin Smoak is having a tremendous season in Japan.

Through 12 games so far with the Giants within the Japan Central League (comparison-wise being AL vs NL, with NPB having the Central League and the Pacific League), Smoak boasts an impressive .357/.595/.400 line with three home runs, six RBI, and three walks in just 45 plate appearances. Yesterday the slugger hit his third home run of the year, a no-doubter over the left-field wall that gave the Giants the lead and eventually won the game.

While most fans knew that Smoak was most likely not returning to the Blue Jays organization when his contract was up back in 2019, it is nice to see that a former fan favourite is finding some success in a top professional league. There are some obvious comparisons and differences between both Japan’s Nippon Professional baseball and Major League Baseball, but both leagues host incredibly talented players and a slash line like Smoak’s is definitely not going unnoticed back in North America, as quite a few players have revitalized their careers after a quick stint in Japan.

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Whether that is Justin Smoak’s end goal or not, as a Blue Jays fan, it’s nice to see that he is finding a groove and hitting the ball well, even if it’s not in the Rogers Centre (or in Buffalo or Dunedin) or for the Blue Jays anymore.