This is one part of an off-season series that reviews how the Blue Jays did position-by-position in 2017 and how they look heading into 2018.
There were massive shoes to fill heading into the 2017 season. Beloved slugger Edwin Encarnacion declined Toronto’s contract offer and the team quickly scooped up Kendrys Morales to replace him rather than waiting around. Morales came nowhere near replacing Edwin’s production as the team’s middle-of-the-order slugger, but on the bright side, Justin Smoak enjoyed a breakout season that nobody saw coming.
What went down last season
This story starts all the way back in July 2016. The Jays were in a weird place with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion’s contracts expiring at the end of the season and a new management team in the fold. The team announced completely out of the blue that they had inked Justin Smoak — the first baseman with the big, slow swing that hacked through every breaking ball — to a two-year extension with an option for a third season.
What?! Why? Nobody could make much sense of this decision because it was viewed as taking possible Jose and Edwin money and putting it into a guy who, at best, was a backup.
In the off-season, the Jays made an offer to Encarnacion that the slugger declined because he wanted to explore free agency. They quickly turned around and signed Kendrys Morales and Edwin, having completely misread the market, ended up signing for less in Cleveland than what he was offered in Toronto.
It was a bad look for everyone involved and it put a lot of pressure on Morales heading into his first season with the club. But the previous off-season, the Jays let David Price walk and instead signed J.A. Happ, a cheaper and less sexy option, in his place and that worked out nicely.
To put it frankly, Kendrys didn’t work out nicely. While he clubbed 28 homers and chipped in with 85 RBIs, Morales’ OPS was a paltry .753 and his wRC+ was a mediocre 97, much lower than what he produced during his resurgent years in Kansas City. He walked less, struck out more, and grounded into an absurd amount of double plays, but Morales did come through with multiple clutch, late-inning homers, to his defence.
But while Morales was a disappointment, Smoak was anything but. Within a few months, Jays fans went from saying “Ugh, Justin Smoak is locked up for another year at $4.125 million” to “hell yes Justin Smoak is locked up for another year at $4.125 million.” Smoak clubbed 38 homers and posted an .883 OPS and never really had a cold streak save for when he slowed down in September due to lingering injuries. His strikeouts went down as he stopped swinging at junk and he looked like a completely different hitter at the plate.
Amazingly, Smoak ended up with the exact same wRC+ of 132 as Edwin did with Cleveland. So I guess the shoes were filled, but it wasn’t by the player anyone expected.
What to expect next season
Morales is signed for two more seasons at $11 and $12 million and Smoak has one more year at $4.125 million and an option year that goes up depending on plate appearances.
Obviously at this point, the Morales deal appears to be an albatross. He’s 34 years old now and has regressed in back-to-back seasons. In 2015, Morales got MVP votes on that World Series winning Royals team. The season after, he took a step back, but a strong finish to the season and some bad luck coupled with strong peripherals made him seem like a bounce back candidate. But he didn’t bounce back in 2017 and I wouldn’t bet on him doing so in 2018 either.
The other ugly thing about this contract is how it messes with the rest of the roster. The Blue Jays are an old team with a handful of players who really can’t be in the field every day. With Morales clogging up the designated hitter slot, it’s much more difficult to give Troy Tulowitzki, Steve Pearce, Devon Travis, or Josh Donaldson a day off from playing the field. Unless, of course, you’re cool with having an expensive bat coming off of the bench.
The Jays could look to move Morales’ salary, but I really doubt anyone is interested in taking on this kind of black hole. He obviously can’t play in the National League, and there are cheaper, shorter term options available for American league teams in need of a DH. I mean, it isn’t a contract that’s going to sink the team, or anything, it just isn’t ideal.
That Smoak salary is a bargain, so long a she continues to hit like he did in 2017. Will he? It’s obviously difficult to say, but the Blue Jays have witnessed their fair share of breakout performances from late bloomers before. But for every Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, there’s a Chris Colabello and Randy Ruiz.
Smoak was once a top draft pick of the Texas Rangers and he was used as a centrepiece in a deal to acquire Cliff Lee from the Seattle Mariners. The talent has always been there, but Smoak wasn’t able to pull it together until last season. According to a story from Shi Davidi, the issue was mental. Smoak started seeing a sports psychologist during the 2016 season to help him stop being so relentless on himself when he struggled.
Like I said earlier, Smoak looked like a totally different hitter at the plate last season. He took way more pitches, didn’t whiff on as many balls outside of the zone, and worked his way into hitter’s counts with frequency. In the past, he would close his eyes and occasionally connect with a meat ball and slam it into the seats. But last season, Smoak worked to get his pitch and took advantage of the opportunities he created.
Whether he’s found himself and will continue to be an All-Star slugger is something we’ll find out next year, but Smoak has obviously earned the first base job next season. With Morales signed to a contract that won’t be easy to move, Smoak coming off of a breakout performance, and prospect Rowdy Tellez not really kicking the door down, we know how the Jays are going to stack up in the first base and designated hitter slots to start 2018. At this point, all we can do is hope that Morales inexplicably bounces back to 2015 form and Smoak wasn’t a one year wonder. I have faith in the latter, but not the former.
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