A little late to the party on this one, but on Tuesday the Blue Jays announced that they had claimed Justin Smoak on waivers from the Seattle Mariners. A real head-scratcher.
It is both intriguing — Smoak is a switch-hitting 1B/DH reclamation project who provides some cover in the event that the Jays move Adam Lind, albeit at a not-insignificant salary (which could actually be a good omen, financially) — and curious — Smoak is kinda terrible, out of options, not a particularly cheap piece of roster fodder, and certainly not an actual replacement for Lind.
Smoak made $2,787,500 in 2014. He has just over four years of MLB service time, so even though he has a club option for $3.6-million in 2015, the Jays could decline it (he has a $150K buyout) and go through the arbitration process with him. Players almost never take pay cuts through arbitration, and in fact the most allowable by the CBA is 20%, meaning that with the buyout factored in the absolute least they could pay him is $2.38-million, and it will certainly be higher than that given that he’s managed to hit 74 home runs over his career.
Because he’ll go through the arbitration process, the Jays will be able to cut him in the spring and be on the hook for only one sixth of his salary, plus the buyout, but one assumes they’re haven’t picked him up just to blow 800,000-odd dollars and ditch him.
It’s just… then what did they pick him up for?
Smoak couldn’t possibly be viewed as a lineup regular — a cheaper replacement for Lind — could he? I understand the fear among those maybe willing to assume the worst when it comes to the Jays and money, but though in 2013 he posted a 111 wRC+ over 512 plate appearances, (.238/.334/.412 with a .278 BABIP), including an impressive 137 mark against right-handers, in 276 plate appearances in this year his wRC+ was an abysmal 77. For comparison, Munenori Kawasaki’s wRC+ was 78. Juan Francisco’s was 108 (though in the second half it was 53). And while that number may be not be entirely representative of Smoak — and certainly isn’t representative of what it was once thought he’d be capable of — the soon-to-be 28-year-old has never come close to producing at the level of Lind, who I’ve noted many times of late has been as good as anybody in baseball over the last two seasons at hitting right-handed pitching.
“There are worse players in baseball than Justin Smoak, and he was a pretty decent prospect not too terribly long ago,” Dave Cameron points out in his instant reaction piece at FanGraphs. “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.”
That’s what his WAR totals tell us, too. By FanGraphs he was about a half win above replacement in 2011 and 2013, and about a half win below in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Baseball Reference had him worth 1.4 wins in 2013, and at 0.9 in 2011, but below replacement level every other year of his career.
He was the centrepiece of the Mariners’ acquisition of Cliff Lee back in 2010, but that was a lot of time, and a lot of big league failure ago. “Even if they can just get his BABIP up from the .260 to .280 range, he could be a useful part-time player,” explains Cameron, setting a low bar that it’s not even a slam dunk that Smoak can cross. It’s not impossible that he could end up having some success here either, it’s just if not, then what?
If he’s not someone they want to give regular playing time to, and he shouldn’t be, he’s a bit of a luxury. So… that could be good! If, y’know, you think it’s good for a presumably cash-strapped front office to go pissing away 2% of their payroll on the hope that they can do for Smoak what they did for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion (and Lind himself, following his years in the wilderness), but couldn’t for… pretty much anyone else. It might at least show that they finally have some payroll breathing room again, though we won’t know that for sure until we see what happens with Lind, and I suppose with some of their other players with options still to be picked up (Dustin McGowan at $4-million, for example). It might mean they’re going to move Lind and cross their fingers that one of several possible DH options ends up being not completely useless. It might also mean that even Lind’s very palatable salary is simply too much, which… yeesh.
The rest of the off-season remains unwritten, of course, and perhaps by the time all is said and done this one will make more sense. Right now, though, I don’t quite get it. Not that I don’t like the idea of someone taking a flyer on Smoak, but I really don’t see how it fits into what the Jays are planning, unless they either actually have money to spend on luxuries that we haven’t yet been willing to believe is available, or they’re actively aiming to get worse. Uh… maybe they just wanted to strike a blow to Seattle’s DH depth in the hopes of peddling Lind their way? I dunno. I highly doubt any of those scenarios is true, but… shit, because of a raise on $1.35-million coming for Juan Francisco, I thought he was a non-tender candidate. So what’s this?