Justin Smoak is a good old boy from Goose Creek, S.C., a lanky, laconic sort whose playful sense of humour helps to keep things loose at the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring-training camp.
“I’ve seen you around,” the big man has been known to say in his southern drawl when you sidle over to his locker hoping for a word or two.
The Blue Jays were conducting infield drills the other day, and Smoak took up his spot at first base.
“What’s the play?” Smoak asked no one in particular before the ball was hit.
“Five-three,” came a reply – score-keeping jargon that everybody connected with the game understands is a ball hit to third base, fielded and then thrown to first.
“What’s that?” Smoak intoned.
The good humour has come in handy for Smoak, who has had little to smile about during his first two seasons as a Blue Jay, at times in which he has struggled to find his batting stroke.
Smoak signed a two-year contract extension in July, 2016, that will pay him $4.1-million (U.S.) in each of the next two seasons. Smoak understands unless he starts to perform, he won’t enjoy the money much.
Last season, in 126 games – just 79 starts – Smoak hit a miserable .217 with 14 home runs. He struck out 112 times in 299 at-bats for a strikeout percentage of 32.8 per cent, the worst mark among team regulars.
He has only shown flashes of the potential that made him a first- round pick (11th overall) by the Texas Rangers in the 2008 Major League Baseball draft.
“You all know as well as I do in this game these days, you can sign for whatever and if you’re not doing, it you’re not going to be out there,” he said.
It appears that Smoak will get that opportunity to prove his value heading into the 2017 season. Comments made last week by Ross Atkins, Toronto’s general manager, all but conceded the first baseman’s job to Smoak for the start of the season.
It was believed that first base would become a committee spot, shared between Smoak, newcomer Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales, another free-agent addition who will be expected to fill some of the offensive void created by the departure of Edwin Encarnacion.
And it still could work out that way. But Atkins said the Blue Jays believe that Smoak can be their primary answer at first base, with Pearce, provided his right elbow continues to improve following off-season surgery, getting most of his work in the outfield, primarily in left.
Morales would then take most of his swings as the designated hitter.
“We’re glad to have options,” Atkins said. “But I think one of our best teams could be if Justin Smoak is playing first base at a regular rate and playing every day for us. That would give us the most versatility, just to have that as an alternative.
“So projecting for Steve [Pearce] to play a good amount of outfield and for Justin to play a good amount of first base, and then to have alternatives and flexibility and to move around that, that would be the best-case scenario.”
Smoak, who played on the same high-school baseball team as Matt Wieters before moving on to the University of South Carolina, is a formidable 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds.
A very capable glove defensively at first base, Smoak also possesses a power swing. He cranked 20 home runs for the Seattle Mariners in 2013.
But since joining the Blue Jays on waivers for the start of the 2015 season, his inconsistency at the plate has resulted in his playing time being limited primarily to spot duty.
Smoak is hopeful that with a regular role at first base this season, his batting will pick up. At the very least, the regular playing time will help lift his spirits.
“It’s refreshing – kind of relaxes your brain a little more,” he said. “You know what to expect.”
Meanwhile, it was picture day at the Blue Jays camp on Tuesday, with the players dressed in their game whites for the occasion and paraded around photography stations set up at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
The session started at 7 a.m. for the players, who lined up for shots taken by, among others, MLB, Sportsnet, The Players’ Tribune and of course Topps, the baseball card company.
There were even pictures taken by a group called, by a club official, the fire safety people, for fire prevention cards the Blue Jays will distribute over the season.
As pitcher Joe Biagini finished off one of his sessions, making way for fellow hurler J.P. Howell, he said: “Good luck in there. Have a good attitude.”
Pitcher Marcus Stroman is planning on doing some freelance work for The Players Tribune, the online media platform established by former MLB great Derek Jeter.
Stroman enticed several of his teammates to its picture station for some hijinks, including centre fielder Kevin Pillar, and the two spent some time taking pictures of each other’s tattoos.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: