More Thoughts on Justin Smoak, Rowdy Tellez, and the Jays’ Post-Edwin First Base Mess

Justin Smoak
Photo Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Bullshit season is in full swing, and the forecast calls for it being an unusually long one this year. The market isn’t moving a whole lot, with clubs waiting to see where the luxury tax threshold will move to under the terms of the new CBA, and so we’re seeing a whole lot of names, but not much action.

Obviously the Blue Jays have made one significant move, signing Kendrys Morales to be the guy they would have preferred Justin Smoak to be, only without a position. And for three years instead of two. Ugh.

The Morales signing certainly has the potential to polarize, mostly because Morales has the potential to be bad, and this regime’s track record of giving money to switch hitting 1B/DH types isn’t exactly spotless — because, speaking of polarizing, they’re still on the hook for Justin Smoak.

Of course, Smoak doesn’t make nearly enough money to be any kind of major problem for the club. His presence isn’t going to stop them from doing anything. It’s just that none of their options with Smoak is particularly appealing, and that fact makes his unnecessary mid-season contract extension that much more of a waste.

A lot of fans are ready to have the club simply walk away. Jonah Keri endorsed that idea earlier today, and the fact that Smoak didn’t even make the ALCS roster at first, and was given just two playoff plate appearances this October, suggests that maybe the club is of a similar mind. But I think that belies some of the reasoning behind their giving him that contract in the first place, and overlooks the way that we’ve seen Ross Atkins undo mistakes before.

It’s extremely, eye-rollingly easy to insist that there’s no way the Jays could get anything remotely useful if they tried to move Smoak, but we would have said the same thing about Drew Storen, and that turned out quite well. I get it, relievers are a different, and we’re talking about a guy with a much longer track record of success than Smoak has, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily impossible to get something back for him that fits the roster better. Maybe it is! But Smoak has been a league average hitter against right-handed pitching in each of the last two seasons, which is obviously low for his position, but not exactly value-less. And he’s a switch hitter, has a good glove, and a contract that you’re not beholden to if there’s a prospect that forces his way into the job.

If you’re a team that’s trying to shed dollars and get bad, maybe there’s something to be done there. Like, if the White Sox do decide to rebuild and end up moving Jose Abreu, does an exchange of Smoak and Melkty Cabrera, and their salaries, start to make sense for a both sides?

Does a team like the Oakland A’s, with a steaming pile of dog shit at first base, think that Smoak is a better solution than Yonder Alonso, who is projected to earn the exact same amount as Smoak will, but is coming off a worse year, and will be a free agent at the end of the season?

Surely, you say, there must be better solutions out there for those teams, but I dunno! Maybe not?

And then we have the Blue Jays — which is where this whole thing gets a little more interesting.

As I said, we need to think about why the Jays made this deal in the first place. Partly it’s because Smoak was hitting better at the time and the club felt comfortable that maybe he’d actually figured something out (whoops!), which is basically what their public stance was at the time. Partly it was also because Smoak understood his role, and was willing to exchange contract certainty for some major uncertainty in terms of playing time. There was also the possibility that playing time would be there for him, as he was insurance — cover — for the potential loss of their preferred first baseman.

But another dimension of it is that Smoak is just a placeholder for Rowdy Tellez. I mentioned this yesterday in my rumour roundup, but was given reason to explore it a further today when Baseball America released their Blue Jays top prospects edition of their podcast (as was passed my way by the must-follow Jays tweeted @_ClintB_), as it featured a couple of Tellez nuggets from John Manuel.

Firstly, he spoke about a scout who raved about Rowdy’s makeup after having a talk with him in which Tellez, as Manuel tells it, recognized that he belongs and has the skills to really be a successful ballplayer, but that he needed to push himself to keep his body in shape to do it. And not only that, he laid out the “A, B, and C” he needed to get there, and by the next spring it was clear to Manuel’s source that the kid had followed through.

Second is the fact that Manuel flat out says that, offensively, Tellez is ready to contribute right now. His defence still needs work, we’re told, but it has come a long way.

This Jays regime is believed to be much more conservative than the previous one when it comes to rushing prospects to the big leagues, but maybe Tellez — who hit .297/.387/.530 in Double-A with a 12.3% walk rate and 23 home runs in 124 games — is on the path to being an exception.

Of note in that regard: Lonnie Chisenhall played just 66 games at Triple-A before being called up to the big leagues for Cleveland in 2011, at age 22 — the same age Tellez will be this season. And though he was a little bit older, Tyler Naquin arrived in Cleveland this year with just 67 Triple-A games under his belt. So it’s maybe not something they’ll rule out entirely. In which case having Smoak stick around may not actually be such a bad thing. Except for, y’know, the fact that a contending team that makes as much goddamned money as these Jays do shouldn’t be relying on a kid like Tellez for anything. Uh… and that it means a least a couple months of Justin Smoak getting regular playing time, which is very not idea.

They could build in a way to mitigate the damage though, and as I wrote yesterday, it’s with a guy like Steve Pearce — someone who I think would take at-bats against RHP away from Smoak anyway, and could still be useful in the outfield if Tellez really does come up and take over at first base.

Another right-handed bat who could take 1B at-bats away from Smoak against LHP and slide to the outfield if Tellez forces his way in (or straight-up make Smoak expendable)? Jose Bautista. *COUGH*.