In one of Howard Bender’s most recent Kicking Rocks articles, he identified Justin Smoak as a player experiencing a breakout season. After looking at Smoak’s stats this season, it would be tough to argue that point. If you took a poll of all the Smoak owners out there, I’m willing to bet that 2/3rds would say that Smoak is performing as they expected; if not better. Typically, this is fantastic for fantasy owners. If a player is playing at, or above, your pre-season expectations, you are probably very happy with your selection. With Smoak, though, owners are running into a very difficult situation.
In re-draft leagues, Justin Smoak is not a viable starter at first base. Due to the depth at the position, Smoak likely doesn’t crack the top twelve at first base in most leagues. More than likely, he’s in the 15-20 range. This can present somewhat of a problem for owners; as Smoak seems to be performing well, but not well enough to crack your lineups. If you are starting Smoak, you either waited on first baseman, or your starter went down with an injury (or you drafted Justin Morneau).
Due to Smoak’s tiny sample of stats in the majors, it’s tough to project whether he’s going to get much better as the season progresses. If you wanted to look at one area that could lead to improvement, it’s Smoak’s poor line drive rate this season. Last season, Smoak lashed line drives around the field 23.1% of the time. Despite the solid contact, his BABIP remained extremely low. This season, Smoak has been able to raise his BABIP, but it’s not due to his line drive rate. In fact, Smoak is currently only hitting line drives 11.6% of the time; a far cry from his rookie season. As we all know, his true line drive rate likely lies somewhere in between those numbers; meaning Smoak’s average, and overall line, should improve once he starts squaring the ball up.
Unfortunately, Smoak’s high strikeout rate will put a limit on his batting average; as players with strikeout rates north of 25% don’t normally hit .280. At best, Smoak is probably a .260 hitter, with strong on-base numbers, and average power at first. That makes him a borderline starter in most leagues.
As far as trading goes, unless you are in a keeper league, you probably won’t get all that much for Smoak. First base is a strong position, and owners are probably more likely to play the waiver wire to look for short-term replacements rather than give up something of value for a few weeks of Smoak.
So, what exactly can you do with Justin Smoak?
Unfortunately, not all that much. In re-draft leagues, he’s a borderline starter that will be used in case of emergencies. Due to his age and former prospect status, Smoak owners are probably likely to hold onto him, hoping there’s something more to come. This is one of those rare situations in fantasy sports where a player performs exactly like you expected, but somehow still ends up a disappointment in your mind. That’s not to say you’re an idiot for drafting Smoak (cause he’s on my team too), it just means, like Howard said in his Kicking Rocks article, you probably struck a year too soon.