Should I give up on the Blue Jays’ Justin Smoak?

Justin Smoak is the epitome of a late-blooming prospect. After mashing in 2009 in Double-A in the Texas Rangers system, and coming out highly heralded out of the University of South Carolina (he was drafted 11th overall by the Rangers), Smoak was identified as the next “big-bopping” first base prospect by most major publications and scouts. However, despite the acclaim nearly a decade earlier, Smoak wasn’t able to transition his “blue chip” prospect status into Major League production early on in his career.

The main piece for the Seattle Mariners in the Cliff Lee trade in 2010, Smoak floundered spectacularly in the Pacific Northwest. In 1,943 plate appearances and five seasons with the Mariners, Smoak only hit 66 home runs and averaged a slash of .226/.308/.384 with a .692 OPS overall. The disappointing production, as well as the Mariners’ own team frustrations and change in management, led to Smoak being waived in 2014, a far fall from grace for a player many thought of as another Mark Teixeira or Chipper Jones when he was drafted in 2008.

However, after being claimed by the Toronto Blue Jays on waivers, Smoak suddenly found the power north of the border that had been dormant in Seattle. He hit 18 home runs in 328 plate appearances in his first season in Toronto, and in 2017, at age 30, Smoak had a career season and became an All-Star player, hitting 38 home runs, 90 RBI, and posting a slash of .270/.355/.529 with an OPS of .883. Suddenly, it appeared that Smoak had not only found a home in Toronto but also could be in the discussion as a top-tier first-basemen in fantasy leagues everywhere going into 2018.

Unfortunately, this season has been closer to what he’s done in Seattle (or his mediocre 2016 season in Toronto) than the magical 2017 campaign.  He’s only hit 9 home runs so far in 299 plate appearances, and his .236/.361/.423 slash and .784 OPS would look good if he was a prolific base-stealing leadoff man, not a first baseman expected to be a major producer in the top half of the lineup. And lastly, after being ranked 90th in Yahoo!’s preseason rankings, Smoak currently ranks 309th overall in leagues, not a great place to be in mixed-leagues when it comes to the first-base position.

So, is Smoak worth keeping? Well, in order to do that, Smoak’s fantasy owners have to look at alternatives on the market, which is probably the only route to go now, since Smoak won’t fetch much of anything in a trade. Using my league as an example (we are a 12-team mixed), I will take a look at seven 1B-eligible candidates who may be worth replacing Smoak.

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  1. Matt Olson, Athletics (110 ranking; 80% owned)
  2. Derek Dietrich, Marlins (132 ranking; 46% owned)
  3. Ian Desmond, Rockies (167 ranking; 74% owned)
  4. Daniel Descalso, Diamondbacks (195 ranking; 30% owned)
  5. Yonder Alonso, Indians (200 ranking, 33% owned)
  6. Yuli Gurriel, Astros (245 ranking, 42% owned)
  7. Ryon Healy, Mariners (269 ranking, 43% owned)

As you can see, all seven rank better than Smoak, so one may be tempted to grab any of the seven as a replacement and think you’re better off. However, if you look deeper at the numbers, some are more skeptical options in comparison to Smoak.

First off, the last three (Alonso, Gurriel, and Healy), despite better rankings than Smoak currently, are probably not likely to finish the year better than Smoak. Smoak’s OPS (.784 OPS) is better than all three (Alonso .776; Gurriel .760; Healy .768), mostly due to Smoak’s much better plate discipline and approach. Furthermore, while Alonso and Healy have more home runs currently, Alonso is going through a similar off-year slump like Smoak (Alonso had 28 home runs last year), and Healy’s plate approach and lack of walks (.292 OBP) makes him a risky pickup, especially if the power tails off in the second half. As for Gurriel, he hits for high average (.306), but his concerning lack of power (4 home runs) doesn’t make him valuable as a starting first-baseman (especially considering that’s the only position he qualifies for).

Desmond is a risky move who has some flexibility (he can also play outfield). He hits homers (15 this year; thanks to Coors), drives in runs (42 RBI) and can get steals (he has 7 so far this year), but a .213 average and .718 OPS is hard to stomach. A lot of his value as a pickup stems on his projected ability in the second half, as many projections expect him to bounce back average-wise come July (he hit .274 last year). So if you are going to go the Desmond route, you might want to make sure your lineup has a lot of high average hitters to protect your weekly average.

Dietrich and Descalso are interesting pickups if you want utility guys who can play multiple positions. Dietrich qualifies as a 2B, 3B, and OF in addition to 1B, and he is hitting .302 for the year with a .850 OPS and 11 home runs. Dietrich has been especially on a tear in June, as he is hitting .389 with a 1.107 OPS and 6 homers in the past 30 days. Descalso provides the same position versatility as the Marlins’ Dietrich, though he isn’t as productive as the Marlins utility man (Descalso is hitting only .266 with a .865 OPS and 6 home runs). However, most owners will have a better shot at picking up Descalso than Dietrich in most leagues, so he is a nice consolation prize for owners who can’t nab Dietrich, but want his combination of flexibility and production.

The biggest debate I’m sure owners may have will be choosing between Smoak or Olson. Olson in a lot of ways is a younger version of Smoak. He doesn’t hit for high average (he’s only hitting .246 and he hit only .259 last year) and he strikes out a lot (27.1 percent K rate). That being said, he has maintained the power for the most part from last year (17 homers this year; .224 ISO), though it’s not as pronounced as it was during his first extended playing stint at the Major League level last season (24 homers; .392 ISO in 101 fewer appearances).

You can do a whole lot worse than Olson if you are dead set on replacing Smoak. At the very least, Olson has some keeper value, as he is only 24 years old; they both have the same kind of skill set (low average, relatively high walk and strikeout rates); and his power seems legitimate (which it has to be in a pitcher-friendly ballpark like the Oakland Coliseum), which means that he may be able to maintain this first half production in the second half. I think Smoak and Olson will have similar second halves, and that’s why I don’t think Olson for Smoak is a no-brainer. But, I know owners may be less patient or feel the pressure to pick up in leagues after slow starts. Hence, if you’re in a position where you have to make a move on Smoak, Olson has been more proven in 2018, and maybe a bit safer based on his better first half.

Overall, Dietrich, Descalso, and Olson would be preferable pickups to replace Smoak. However, if neither of those three is available, you’re probably better off keeping the Smoak monster, as Alonso, Gurriel, Desmond, and Healy aren’t likely to be much better than Smoak (hell, they may be worse) in the second half of the season.

It’s definitely a tough decision. Smoak is replaceable, sure. But be discerning, and don’t automatically drop him. The plate approach is there. Now he just needs some of those hits (and dingers) to fall.

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