When the Toronto Blue Jays avoided arbitration with Justin Smoak by signing him to a one year deal worth $3.9 million many were confused. It seems odd to give a guy like Smoak such a large pay raise. The Jays nearly quadrupled the salary of a guy who was a waiver wire pickup last off season. He hit .226 last year with 18 HR and 59 RBI. These numbers don't indicate an outstanding performance and at 29 years he's no longer at the "prospect" phase of his career. However, even with all of this the Jays offered him nearly $4 million. The question now is "could the Jays be on to something?"
Justin Smoak was once a top prospect when he was drafted by the Rangers in 2008. Smoak made his MLB debut in 2010 where he was rather unmemorable. He was eventually traded to the Mariners where he was sent to triple-A. For the next four years Smoak would be a part of the Mariners system where he would struggle. Eventually, Seattle placed Smoak on waivers and the Jays picked him up. This leads us to 2015.
Justin Smoak's 2015 doesn't appear to be anything to write home about at first glance. But a closer look at the numbers shows that maybe Justin Smoak is the perfect fit for 1B in Toronto. Justin Smoak hit 18 HR and set a new career high with 59 RBI. While these numbers don't initially appear that great, they do seem much better when you put them in the context that he only had 328 PA. If the Jays were to give Justin Smoak 550 PA (which is a fair number for a starting 1B) then this translates to 30 HR and 98 RBI. While there's a good chance that he doesn't achieve these numbers a season in which we see 25+ HR and 80+ RBI isn't out of the question, especially if he's hitting in a loaded Jays lineup. In 2015 he slashed .226/.299/.470. This is far from the slash line of top 1B in the league. But with runners in scoring position these numbers jumped to .303/.372/.658. That's an OPS of 1.030 when there are scoring opportunities. That's higher than Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion is the same situation. This isn't to say that late in a game I would rather have Smoak up than either of those two. But what it does mean is that, when guys are in scoring position, Smoak rises to the occasion.
Justin Smoak also provides other benefits to the Jays' 1B situation. When comparing him to the other two 1B options (Colabello and EE) Smoak is nearly three year younger than both, he's superior defensively, and is the only one with the ability to hit from the right side. These final two points are especially noteworthy.
In 2015 Justion Smoak posted a UZR/150 of 4.6. Smoak didn't play enough to meet qualified innings but if he had then this would have placed him 7th among MLB first baseman, right behind Paul Goldschmidt. Colabello posted a UZR/150 of -5.1 at first base in 2015. Encarnacion holds a career UZR/150 of -8.6 at 1B. This clearly makes Smoak the best option defensively. Pairing Smoak with the other 3 Gold Glove caliber infielders the Jays will start the season with could result in one of the top defensive infields in all of baseball. This becomes especially important when you consider Stroman's increase use of his new sinker and an average pitching staff that will need help from the infield to get outs.
Smoak's ability to switch hit increases his value even more. The Jays lineup will feature at least 6 right handed hitters to start the season (7 once Travis comes back). Smoak is the Jays only option to plug a guy who can hit left handed into the middle of the order. Letting Smoak bat after the big 4 will provide some level of protection to the guys to follow such as Martin and Pillar. Gibbons expressed a desire to make the lineup more balanced this season and as it stands Smoak is one of the only options that the Jays have to do so.
All of this culminates into me thinking that maybe Smoak is the Jays' best option heading into 2015. He's no longer a top prospect, he's not a guy that you build your team around, and he's not going to be the star of a team. But that's all okay. What Smoak does bring to the party is the potential to hit 25+ HR while playing good defense and helping balance out the lineup. If you're a Toronto Blue Jays fan it's hard to hope for much more.