DUNEDIN, Fla. – The Toronto Blue Jays really believe in Justin Smoak, and that’s significant because for most of the 30-year-old first baseman’s time in the big leagues, doubt has been his near-constant companion.
A first-round pick once considered among the game’s top prospects, the six-foot-four, 220-pound slugger is still chasing his potential. He debuted at 23 with the Texas Rangers, was flipped to Seattle as the centrepiece of a trade deadline blockbuster for Cliff Lee soon after, and then never set his feet with the Mariners, who eventually put him on waivers, where the Blue Jays laid claim to him.
Following a solid 2015, they gave him an $8.25-million, two-year extension midway through last season as uncertainty over Edwin Encarnacion’s future loomed. On Saturday, after the Blue Jays’ first full-squad workout, Ross Atkins called Smoak playing every day at first with Steve Pearce the primary left-fielder as the club’s “best-case scenario,” for the positions, the first time he’s expressed that so explicitly.
The faith shown in him means a lot to Smoak, who spent the off-season working on ways to reward it.
“I came up as that guy who was supposed to put all these numbers up and all that, and I just didn’t from Day 1,” he said in the clubhouse after a session in the weight room. “On my side, it was always maybe he can, maybe he can’t; it’s in there, maybe it’s not. When you hear that enough, it gets you to the point where it’s like, can I really do this? I played my whole life thinking I could. It hasn’t been easy for me. But I feel like I’m in a place now where I love it, I’m comfortable, I know we have a great team, I know the front office is behind me, I feel the coaches are. It’s just a matter of going out there and proving it.”
A great “storyline” this season for the Blue Jays, according to Atkins, would be if Smoak does indeed leverage his abilities and lock down first base. The most unsettled positional pieces in the club’s roster puzzle are at first base and left field, and because of both Pearce’s versatility and return from elbow surgery, the two spots are intertwined.
Pearce is throwing at 90 feet right now and the club projects him to be ready to play left field in time for opening day. The process is going so well, the Blue Jays have had to restrain him, with his first “full go” batting practice session due Sunday.
“As an athlete, as a competitor, you want to test it every day so I’m actually glad that they’re making the decisions for me because if it was up to me, I’d be at 300 feet already and back in the training room,” said Pearce. “They know I’m frustrated but at the same time there’s a process we have to follow.”
If he can’t play left field, Pearce will take some at-bats away from Smoak at first base, leaving more playing time in the outfield for Ezequiel Carrera and Melvin Upton Jr. Of course if Smoak doesn’t deliver enough production at first base, Pearce is his likeliest replacement since Kendrys Morales is expected to be used primarily as a designated hitter.
For all those reasons, the way things stand now may not be the way things stand a month from now.
“We’re glad to have options,” said Atkins. “One of our best teams could be if Justin Smoak is playing first base at a regular rate, playing every day for us. That would give us the most versatility, just to have that as an alternative. …
“A lot could change, a lot could evolve. (Upton) is a very good major-league player and he very well could be the guy that’s playing regularly in left field for us. What we’d like to do is to have a spring training that gives us that choice to make.”
In 2013, Smoak hit a career-high 20 homers in 454 at-bats, adding 19 doubles and 64 walks. He finished with a .746 OPS, second only to the .768 he posted in 2015 with the Blue Jays, when he went deep 18 times in only 296 at-bats. But last year, his OPS dipped to just .705 in 341 plate appearances with just 14 home runs amid sporadic playing time, making only 25 trips to the plate from September through the playoffs, managing only a hit and five walks.
As he endured those struggles, he reflected on the issues that have dogged him throughout his time in the big leagues.
“I took it hard on myself when I didn’t do well – that’s what hurt me the most,” said Smoak. “You play every day, six-month season, you’re going to have ups and downs but it’s how you handle the downs. For me, I haven’t handled the downs as well as I should have. … You’re going to go 0-for-10, 0-for-12. It’s how you handle those. If you go 0-for-12, do you change everything? You can’t do that. But that’s something I’ve done year after year trying to get better, and it’s only made me worse.”
Watching his Blue Jays teammates the past two seasons has helped give him perspective. When Josh Donaldson or Troy Tulowitzki or Jose Bautista go through a rough stretch Smoak noticed that “they show up the next day like nothing’s wrong.”
On the other hand, he’d immediately start to tinker after a bad night, which ran contrary to his personality. That bothered him: “My whole life I’ve always been known as even-keeled.”
What’s worse is that in trying to make some sort of adjustment, he’d step into the box thinking about his hands, or his load, or his triggers or whatever little tweak he’d fixated on, anxious to do something positive. Rarely did he trust what he was doing for long, which is why one of the conclusions he reached is that he needs to be the steady guy he’s been all his life, even if he’s in a rut.
“Honestly, I’m trying to get back to what’s natural: Feel athletic in the box, be early, on time and ready to hit,” said Smoak. “When I’m going through those tough times, I’m thinking about too much stuff instead of focusing on, this is what I’m looking for, this is what I’m going to hit. When you’re going good, there’s no panic. And when you’re going bad, for me there’s always been a lot of panic.
“That’s something I worked on this off-season. When you get so much going on in your head at one time, there’s no chance. I’ve had success, at times, and the times I have, I don’t think about anything. The times I haven’t, I’m thinking about everything under the sun. So it’s trying to not to be so hard on myself when things don’t go right, because things aren’t going to right. It’s baseball.”
Among the many axioms that float around the game is this one: You don’t give up on talent. That Smoak is talented isn’t in question, it’s his ability to translate that talent into production on the field that remains uncertain.
From an evaluative standpoint, what have the Blue Jays seen that is holding him back?
“A lot of it is reps, opportunity and then a lot of it is belief, him knowing that he’s going to realize his potential,” replied Atkins. “There’s not one fundamental thing we can point to. …
“Justin Smoak is talented,” he added later. “He’s also been a very good major-league player. Even if he isn’t those things, he’s still going to be a solid contributor to the Toronto Blue Jays. We just feel like there’s some upside to him.”
The Blue Jays really do believe in Justin Smoak, and are intent on giving him a chance to prove themselves right.