Blue Jays off-season shuffle: Where does Justin Smoak fit?

Justin Smoak and the Toronto Blue Jays agreed to a two-year, $8.25 million contract extension in-season with a team option for 2019

In mid-May, it looked like Blue Jays first-baseman and former blue-chip prospect Justin Smoak had figured it out.

His OPS sat at .948 on May 14th, and with Chris Colabello‘s season essentially lost to an 80-game suspension, Smoak’s had his big shot. Even though those numbers had come back down to earth by mid-July, the Blue Jays extended Smoak for two additional guaranteed seasons at an annual value of $4.125 million.

Smoak finished the season with a .217 batting average, a strikeout in nearly one-third of his at-bats, and a value of -0.1 Wins Above Replacement. That production is difficult to fit in an everyday role on a playoff contender, but with Smoak’s contract, he’s the Blue Jays’ first-baseman unless (or until) another is signed.

To sort through where he fits in this picture, two common narratives need to be addressed:

Defence

In broadcast and in other forms, Smoak is frequently referred to as a strong defender at first base. He’s lauded for his big frame and soft hands, which create value even when Smoak is not finding luck at the plate.

First-base defensive metrics are among the least exact of defensive analytics, but even still, Smoak has graded out negatively in each of his professional seasons according to FanGraphs. Last season he was worth -5 Defensive Runs Saved, and he’s never posted a positive mark in that category. His career UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating measured in runs above average) is just 0.6.

Smoak is a stronger defender than many at the position, of course, but to frame him as a defensive specialist there is not entirely accurate.

Platoon Splits

On Saturday, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Blue Jays are interested in versatile free agent Steven Pearce, potentially as a candidate to platoon with Smoak at first.

This move makes sense from Pearce’s side, as he immediately offers any free agent suitor a lefty-masher with the ability to play multiple positions. Smoak, however, does not offer an overwhelming benefit from his side of a platoon.

Smoak has hit right-handed pitching to a career .720 OPS (.738 in 2016). Pearce’s career OPS versus righties is .728, so would this not be a platoon for the sake of a platoon in some ways? In an ideal world, Smoak would be a prominent threat from one side of the plate, but that’s not the reality.

The Bottom Line

Toronto’s stated goal to improve team speed didn’t exactly leap forward with the addition of Morales. The free agent will provide value — very strong value at times — but those hitting behind him will be blocked on the bases. Add Smoak to the same lineup in an everyday role, and you’ve got more of the same.

Whether it be Toronto or another club — perhaps one looking to offload a spare part — Smoak has an MLB role. Just not a starting one.

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