By Andrew Hendriks
The Blue Jays welcomed Justin Smoak into the mix Tuesday as Toronto claimed the first baseman off waivers from the Seattle Mariners.
Smoak, 27, joins Toronto having played in a total of 556 games in the major leagues while slashing .224/.309/.380 in just over 2,200 big league plate appearances since breaking in with the Texas Rangers in 2010.
Prior to becoming a professional in 2008, Smoak’s amateur career left baseball pundits, fans and executives alike intrigued at what the future could hold for the young star.
Following what had been nothing short of a dominant high school career in South Carolina, Smoak led the highly-regarded Cape Cod League in home runs (11), slugging percentage (.565) and extra-base hits (21) in 2006.
For his efforts in the Cod, the Cotuit Kettleers slugger took home league MVP honors, officially establishing himself as a must-see prospect prior to attending the University of South Carolina.
In his junior year with the Gamecocks, the product of Stratford High hit .383, mashed 23 home runs and helped pilot the program to a fourth place finish in the Southeastern Conference. By the end of his university baseball career, Smoak set school records in all-time home runs, walks and RBI while being named a semi-finalist for the Golden Spikes Award in both ’07 and ’08.
With his draft stock reaching a crescendo following an impressive collegiate showing, the future Team USA star was scooped up by Texas in the first round of the 2008 amateur draft and over the course of the next three seasons Smoak propelled through the Rangers’ minor league system, reaching the big leagues as a 23-year-old in 2010.
Despite putting up modest numbers as a rookie with Texas over parts of the next two seasons, Smoak was shipped off to Seattle, joining the Mariners as one of the centerpiece’s in a mid-season deal that sent both Cliff Lee and Mark Lowe to the Rangers in exchange for a trio of prospects including Josh Lueke and Blake Beavan.
During the remainder of the 2011 regular season, Lee ended up losing more games than he won, posting an ERA that hovered around four in 15 starts down the stretch. But despite his struggles, the left-handed hurler turned up red hot in the postseason, helping to guide the Rangers to their second World Series appearance in franchise history.
Smoak, who was the Mariners’ equivalent of Lee in that 2011 trade, never did live up to the sky-high expectations placed on him. Over parts of the next four seasons, the South Carolina native ended up splitting his time between first base and DH while posting an OPS of .692 in just under 500 games as a Mariner.
Toronto’s acquisition of Smoak, a left-handed hitting first baseman, further fans the flames that give life to the unending amount of rumors regarding Adam Lind and his tenure with the Blue Jays.
Lind, whose current contract features a one-year club option for 2015 at $7,500,000, could very well end up a free agent should Toronto refuse to pick up his option, deciding to use the money saved to address other needs such as re-signing Melky Cabrera, or finding bullpen help this winter.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that Toronto chooses to exercise Lind’s option with the sole intentions of trading the long-time Blue Jay to another club during the off-season. Should that be the case, Toronto has three days following the final game of the World Series to do so.
As for Smoak, he’s owed $3,650,000 stemming from a two-year, pre-arbitration deal inked by Seattle during last year’s off-season. The deal comes with a $150,000 buy out that, if used, can expose the former Mariner to the arbitration process, where Toronto would likely make a case for offering the veteran a lower single season salary.
Should Lind remain in the Blue Jays picture for 2015, Smoak, who is without options on his current contract, will have a tough time finding his way onto the 25-man roster when camp breaks next April. Is the writing on the wall?