Blue Jays Claim Justin Smoak

The Blue Jays have have a strong recent track record of taking failed hitters and turning them into franchise cornerstones. In 2008, they traded minor league catcher Robinzon Diaz to Pittsburgh for Jose Bautista, then watched him turn into Joey Bats. In 2009, Edwin Encarnacion was one of three players they acquired from the Reds in exchange for Scott Rolen, but they ended up having to re-sign him as a free agent after the A’s claimed him on waivers and then released him two weeks later; that move has worked out pretty well, I’d say. So now they’re trying it again, claiming Justin Smoak off waivers from the Mariners.

The Mariners put Smoak through waivers for two main reasons:

1. They had a $3.6 million option on him for 2015 that was unlikely to be exercised, so they would have had to pay a $200,000 buyout to void the final year of the contract.

2. He’s kind of terrible.

Okay, maybe point #2 is a bit of hyperbole. There are worse players in baseball than Justin Smoak, and he was a pretty decent prospect not too terribly long ago. But Justin Smoak is a remarkably slow-footed first baseman, so to be a valuable contributor in the big leagues, he needs to hit. And he just hasn’t. Over the first five years of his career, he’s posted a wRC+ of 94, putting him in the same group as Vernon Wells, Brennan Boesch, and Peter Bourjos, among others. If he could run like Bourjos or even play the outfield in a reasonable manner, he’d have some value, but as a plodding first baseman, a 94 wRC+ is basically replacement level.

In fact, that Smoak has lasted as a regular this long is kind of amazing. Over the last 50 years, 92 first baseman have been given 2,000 or more plate appearances by the end of their age-27 season; of that group, Justin Smoak ranks 89th in wRC+, ahead of only Travis Lee, Casey Kotchman, and Dan Meyer. Kotchman was an elite defensive first baseman, while Lee was a very good baserunner relative to his peers; Smoak is neither of those things, so he ranks behind both in WAR at this point of his career. Only Meyer produced fewer WAR through this point among first baseman who got this many chances, and from ages 28 to 32, he would produce another -2.0 WAR over 900 plate appearances before finally getting forcibly retired.

So, yeah, the comparisons for Justin Smoak aren’t good anymore. He had promise as a college player and minor leaguer, but he hasn’t shown enough power to justify the rest of his skillset, which essentially requires power to play in the big leagues. The good news is that Toronto is a much more friendly place to hit than Seattle, and the Blue Jays have had success with these reclamation projects before. Even if they can just get his BABIP up from the .260 to .280 range, he could be a useful part-time player.

If you have money to burn, $3.6 million to see if there’s any glimmer of hope left in Smoak isn’t the worst idea ever. The Blue Jays better not count on this working, though, because history suggests that guys who get this many chances and fail to take advantage probably aren’t worth many more chances.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

I think you are missing a reference to Edwin Encarnacion in the first paragraph.