DUNEDIN, Fla. – Now this is Florida. Mostly blue skies, heat, a little breeze – a welcomed respite from Saturday’s never-ending rain or, yes, the winter’s never-ending snow.
But for Justin Smoak, it’s beginning to appear as if the forecast this spring is for cloud, cloud and more cloud. Injuries that might give him a foot in the door or, at least, allow him to put his left-handed bat through the door – such as the one suffered by Michael Saunders – miraculously heal.
Boom! From out until the all-star break to an outside shot at opening day. Then, the Blue Jays go out and sign Dayan Viciedo to a minor-league deal. Viciedo is expected to be in camp on Monday, and manager John Gibbons wants to see him at first base.
So here’s first base: Smoak, a one-time prospect who is a switch-hitter in name only since one look at his looping, scythe-like, right-handed swing – good for cutting grain, not so good for producing line drives – explains why the Jays view him as a left-handed hitter.
Danny Valencia, who crushes lefties. Daric Barton, who can also handle lefties. Viciedo, who will also get a look in the outfield and at third but usually moves around the field with the grace of a tank.
Oh yeah, and Edwin Encarnacion, whose manager acknowledges that he prefers to be a designated hitter but has worked hard to hone his defensive skills.
When pressed, Jays people will tell you that Smoak only makes the team as part of a first-base platoon with Valencia, which would allow Encarnacion to DH. Unless the Blue Jays retain switch-hitting Dioner Navarro as DH, which would leave no room at the inn for Smoak, who was claimed off waivers in October and signed a one-year, $1-million deal less than 24 hours after being non-tendered by the Blue Jays.
The team does not believe Smoak’s skill set lends itself to a bench role, especially since it has ticketed at least one of those to a player who can back up shortstop Jose Reyes and play second base, and will need cover for Dalton Pompey in centre field – and then there’s the whole Josh Thole thing.
This is quite a tumble for a guy who was the 11th pick not so long ago in the 2008 draft by the Texas Rangers – called by Baseball America the best “value pick” of the draft – and was part of the trade that sent Cliff Lee to the Rangers. No longer a power prodigy, if Smoak has any edge on any of the other 5,000 or so first base candidates in camp, it might be his defence.
“There’s a reason guys like [Mark] Teixeira and [James] Loney are so valuable in the field,” said manager John Gibbons. “Wing span. Justin has tremendous wing span and really, really soft hands. He knows his way around the bag.”
Left unsaid by Gibbons – it is, after all, just a few days into this spring training nonsense – is the necessity of a deft, sure-handed first baseman as a necessity on this team. God love Josh Donaldson for his bat and attitude but the man can unleash some rotten throws. Of his 23 errors last season, 17 were throwing (the third most in a season dating back to 2002).
And the guy at shortstop had the yips at times, too — Reyes had 11 throwing errors. That’s 28 from the left side of the infield, folks, and while the new slower artificial surface at Rogers Centre might allow the duo to get into better throwing positions, a big target could well be a plus.
Smoak smiled a bit ruefully on Sunday when it was suggested that most guys his size wouldn’t want to be in a position where defence is their calling card.
“No doubt, it’s something that might give me an edge here,” he said “It’s something I’ve always tried do since I was a young guy — try to bring something to that side of the game.”
Otherwise, Smoak just shrugged when asked about the influx of position players – Gibbons freely admitted Sunday that he would love to schedule some “B” games, given all the bodies he has in camp, but added that the Blue Jays didn’t have enough pitchers in camp to schedule many of them – and whether the quick plunge into the Grapefruit League season, which starts Tuesday, might be a boon since it would allow him to showcase his defensive skills.
“You know, most guys they’d probably tell you that they’re never really fully ready for that first game,” said Smoak. “It is what it is. Really, all I try to do is do whatever it takes on any particular day to make myself a better player. If there’s a game to do it in? That’s fine.”
Offensively, Gibbons’ expectations for Smoak aren’t statistics-based. “I want to see how he looks, how he plays, how he competes against right-handers and left-handers,” Gibbons said. “I’m not worried about the numbers, I’m interested in the quality of what he does.”
On a day in which Smoak’s status became a little more cloudy, that will have to pass for clarity. It’s about as good as Justin Smoak will get this spring.