OAKLAND, Calif. – Extending Justin Smoak’s contract is a safe play for the Toronto Blue Jays. Should Edwin Encarnacion depart as a free agent at season’s end, they’re not left naked at first base, and if he returns, they can run the same workload split between first and designated hitter in use now.
The money, at $8.25 million over two years with an escalating option for 2019, is workable. And while there would have been alternatives in free agency, Smoak is a known commodity, one valued highly for his defensive play, and appreciated for the calm demeanour he brings to the clubhouse.
Perhaps, as general manager Ross Atkins suggested, the 29-year-old first baseman still has some upside. Even if he’s destined to be the player he’s been in his season and a half with the Blue Jays so far, the deal at minimum offers a bit of stability for a team that still has eight pending free agents.
“His defence, the power, the plate discipline and the potential of there being more in there,” Atkins said of why Smoak was an extension target. “If you get the same production over the course of a year, you have an average, every day, major-league first baseman. That’s not easy to buy. They can be extremely expensive. That usually starts with an eight, if you have an average everyday first-baseman with power, plate discipline and, objectively, his defence isn’t measuring as good as we feel it is.”
Still, bigger-picture questions remain.
Smoak will get $4.125 million in each of the 2017 and ’18 seasons and that pushes the Blue Jays’ payroll guarantees to $88.625 million for six players next year. Depending on where the payroll number ends up – and with attendance on pace to exceed three million for the first time since 1993 it should be higher from the $140 million it’s at this year – there isn’t a lot of free cash to plug all the looming holes.
Smoak’s $4.125 million is $4.125 million that can’t be used on Encarnacion or Jose Bautista or Michael Saunders. Then there’s the rapid progress of prospect Rowdy Tellez to consider, who could find himself at triple-A before season’s end and on a trajectory toward the majors late next year, barring setbacks. Does Smoak end up blocking his path?
Given all that, this commitment to Smoak from the Blue Jays is a significant one. That’s why his $6 million option for 2019 includes escalators that push its value up to $7 million if he makes combined 950 plate appearances over the next two years, $7.5 million at 1,000 takes and $8 million at 1,100. There’s a buyout of $250,000.
“We do feel like he has the potential to play every day, but it really comes down to alternatives,” Atkins said. “Edwin could be a DH and Justin could be playing regularly at first base as he was earlier this year. … They’re on the same team now and could be on the same team moving forward. I just think that there’s the potential of Justin being more than the complementary player he has been over the last couple of years.”
Smoak would have had alternatives as well as the free agent market for first baseman this fall is far from star-studded beyond Encarnacion, with Mark Teixeira, Steve Pearce, Adam Lind, Mike Napoli, James Loney and Mitch Moreland among the other top names.
Extension discussions between the Blue Jays and his representatives started Monday and concluded quickly, Smoak was motivated to stay put rather than test the market.
“Talking to my agent and looking at the opportunities, we didn’t know how many opportunities there were going to be on the East Coast, honestly, and maybe in the American League,” said Smoak. “We love Toronto, me and my family, we wanted to stay here for as long as we can, and I’m just happy to get something done.”
Playing time was discussed, said Smoak, and while the 11th overall pick in 2008 described the situation as “right now it is what it is,” he added that he’s been an everyday player before and he’s ready to do whatever is needed from him.
“You always want to be better, even the guys that are all-stars, they’re always trying to figure out a way to get better,” said Smoak. “Have I lived up to expectations as a first-rounder? No, not even close. I know I can be a better player, it’s all about staying consistent, it’s what you strive for everyday and it’s the goal to keep working on that to be a more consistent player.”
What’s he doing to make that happen?
“It’s more trying to find a rhythm everyday of what you want to feel,” he said. “The guys that are really good are really good at that. For me, there’s more work to be done being a switch hitter, you’ve got to get that done every day to try and get that feeling that you want, because they’re going to bring a lefty in for me late in the game and that’s part of it. You’ve got to be able to have a good at-bat or drive somebody in late in the game to try and win a ballgame, so it’s trying to find that consistency.”
In a sense, Smoak already gives the Blue Jays some consistency. They’re hoping he can, and may need him to, give them more.