Back in 2016, there may not have been a move by the Blue Jays front office more heavily scrutinized than the contract extension of Justin Smoak. At the time, Smoak was a bench player, but seemingly out of nowhere, the club re-upped Smoak with a two-year/$8.25 million contract extension with an option for a third year.
Fans and analysts were dumbfounded by the deal, myself included. Why the hurry to re-sign a career -0.9 WAR player at the time? It felt like a completely unnecessary move; a transaction that barely moved the needle for a team trying to make its second consecutive playoff appearance.
In retrospect, one wonders where the Blue Jays would be the last few years if not for Smoak. Not that he was the difference maker for a 76-win club in 2017, a 73-win club in 2018 or this 26-win club in 2019, but Smoak has given the team more than enough value for the $21.3 million he’s earned in a Blue Jays uniform.
With the final year of his current contract coming to an end at the conclusion of the regular season, the Blue Jays are at a crossroads with their starting first baseman. A man who has been a fixture on this roster — yes, Smoak has been part of the furniture of this club for the last three seasons — might be playing out his final weeks in a Blue Jays uniform.
Or, is he?
Logic dictates that most of the Blue Jays’ veteran players with any value will be dealt ahead of this year’s trade deadline. That includes guys like Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Ken Giles and the aforementioned Smoak. The case could be made to keep one of those starting pitchers, but Smoak’s future in Toronto is still uncertain.
For one, how much trade value does Smoak have on the market? The Seattle Mariners just traded away Edwin Encarnacion for one pitching prospect, albeit the Mariners kicked in nearly half the cash to make the deal happen. In some circles, Smoak and his pro-rated $8 million salary plus his ability to capably play a position might be worth more … but how much more, really?
How many contenders are looking for a switch-hitting, slugging first baseman at this point in the season? And which contenders really want to give up prospect capital to make it happen? Given the market for players of Smoak’s ilk, the Jays might have to settle for a similar return to the Josh Donaldson trade when the club landed Julian Merryweather.
On the other hand, if there aren’t any tempting offers on the trade market, would it be the worst thing in the world to let Smoak play out the string and try to bring him back on a one-year deal next season? While Rowdy Tellez has shown flashes of brilliance, he hasn’t played well enough to take the first baseman’s job away from Smoak. At this moment, Smoak is still the superior hitter and it’s not even close.
It’s not like the first baseman free agent market forecasts to be robust this coming offseason, either. A grand total of $31.75 million in guaranteed money was handed out to free agent first baseman last winter. Daniel Murphy’s $24 million deal with the Rockies occupied the bulk of that spending.
The 2020 first baseman free agent class includes Mitch Moreland, Steve Pearce, David Freese, Justin Bour, Lucas Duda and Smoak. That list expands to Anthony Rizzo, Ryan Zimmerman and Eric Thames if their club options aren’t picked up for the 2020 season.
I hate to say it, but with the way free agency is heading, Smoak forecasts to be one of these players who signs next January or February on a one-year contract, potentially even a minor league deal. That seems crazy to me, even though Smoak has been a 6.8 WAR player since arriving in Toronto back in 2015.
That’s why I think Smoak is still one of the better options for the Blue Jays to have at first base in 2020. He still hits for power, he still gets on base and by all accounts, pitchers like him on defense and infielders enjoy having the large target to throw to at first base.
It goes without saying that if a contending team tempts the Blue Jays with a really intriguing prospect, the Jays should explore trading Smoak this year. But it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they just hung onto him, either.
The fear is that he could turn into the next Kendrys Morales for this club, but if the club only forks over a nominal fee on a short-term deal to re-sign Smoak, it mitigates the risk in case 1.) Smoak suddenly forgets how to hit or draw a walk, or 2.) another player emerges as a better option at first base.
Unfortunately, this is the year when the Blue Jays will likely dismantle the final few remaining holdovers from those 2015-2016 playoff teams. Stroman, Sanchez and Smoak are among the leftovers. It seems like a 50/50 proposition whether the Blue Jays trade Smoak, let him walk as a free agent or bring him back for at least one more year.
Whenever Smoak’s tenure ends with the Blue Jays; whether it’s within the next month, at the end of the season or in the near future, he’s authored one of the most unpredictable breakouts in a Blue Jays uniform.
If there’s one player who’s convinced me that players can go from being a top-20 prospect in their early 20s to breaking out nearly a decade later at age 30, it’s Smoak.