In an ideal world, the Toronto Blue Jays want Justin Smoak to be their every-day starter at first base. However, this is not an ideal world.
There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations for someone – it’s a significant part of professional sports. However, the Toronto Blue Jays may be hoping for a bit too much, when it comes to Justin Smoak.
Speaking to Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi on Saturday, general manager Ross Atkins said: “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.”
One of the issues with this best-case scenario is the fact Smoak is coming off an underwhelming season. In fact, “underwhelming” seems like an appropriate word, when considering his professional career as a whole.
Heading into the 2008 draft, the Goose Creek, South Carolina native was projected as one of the top five players available. Interestingly, there were contrasting views on his defensive skills, but his bat was expected to compensate for any perceived limitations.
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In the end, Smoak was selected 11th by the Texas Rangers, due to his demand for a large contract. Along with the scouts, he was predicting big things from himself.
Since then, the 30-year old has flattered to deceive. Every time you think he’s starting to get it, everything unravels.
In this respect, one of those occasions came during Smoak’s first season in Toronto. He ended the 2015 campaign with career highs in RBIs, slugging percentage and OPS, prompting the Blue Jays to re-sign him.
Unfortunately for the player and team, this was followed by the aforementioned regression in 2016, despite the boost of signing a two-year extension mid-season. Regardless, Atkins and the rest of the front office are expressing their belief in the first baseman.
Smoak discussed the pressure he has been under, since first coming to the Majors. Speaking to Davidi, he said: “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.
“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?”
However, Smoak is appreciative of the faith the Blue Jays are showing in him, and feels he’s finally found the right circumstances to justify it: “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.”
Despite publicly stating his comfort level, the former Seattle Mariner still has a lot of pressure to contend with. If he fails to make the first base job his own, it will have a knock on effect to other areas of the lineup.
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As part of Atkins’ best case scenario for the Blue Jays, they want to see Steve Pearce playing regularly in left field. However, if Smoak does not produce, Pearce’s versatility means he will also see time at first base.
This would in turn result in Melvin Upton Jr. and/or Ezequiel Carrera getting more playing time in the outfield. While having no problem with being proven wrong, Smoak’s history increases the likelihood of this happening.
Along those lines, even Atkins is preparing for this possible scenario: “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.” Whether that choice is forced upon the Blue Jays, depends on Smoak.
Taking everything into account, what are your realistic expectations for Smoak this coming season? Do you see him living up to the Blue Jays’ hopes, or do you predict similar production to last year in Toronto? Share your thoughts in the comments section.