Here we are in the year 2018 and I’m using the terms ‘upgrade’ and ‘with Justin Smoak’ in conjunction with each other. It wasn’t long ago, 2016 to be exact, that Smoak seemed destined to be relegated to the bin of 1st round disappointments, along with fellow 2008 1st rounder, Pedro Alvarez.
And although Josh Bell was only a 2nd rounder, he sure was paid a $5M signing bonus as if he were a 1st rounder back in 2011. Unfortunately, his trajectory is moving towards the same bin of disappointment as Pedro Alvarez. Josh Bell’s wRC+ of 112 this past year was a slight improvement over 2017’s 108 wRC+, the year that he hit 26 home runs. I use wRC+ almost exclusively for offensive statistical comparisons because it encompasses all the ways a player can contribute to his team’s offense and it’s gauged against the whole league, normalized for the era and park.
So, in essence, Bell has been only 8-12% above average these past two years for offense. Many people are enthralled by the dingerz and fail to see that he contributes little else. You know who else was mostly in the same range for wRC+ ? Pedro Alvarez. Pete was consistently in the 103-114 range over the course of his career here, save for the abomination of a 2011 season when he had a 58 wRC+. This is why I’ve said that Josh Bell is Pedro Alvarez 2.0 and got roundly pilloried for it at the time. (I didn’t care.)
This is the point of the article where I put a disclaimer on the rest of the article — No, I don’t think the Pirates will trade Josh Bell or bring someone in to start over him. On a team that’s relatively starved for home runs, Bell has at least shown he has the potential to hit 30+ one day. The Pirates don’t want to give up on that just yet. My contention is that they should if they are serious about contending for the playoffs in 2019.
Bell didn’t hurt the team last year (his wRC+ was above 100, after all), but he didn’t help them either. It’s not like he’s going to contribute on defense or on the basepaths, either. So if he’s not going yard more than last season’s 12, he’s not really doing a whole heck of a lot. The moves for Chris Archer and Keone Kela were win-kinda-soon moves, as both are under control for three seasons and two, respectively. The infield is the weak spot on the team. If they want to realistically be a player in 2019, they have to upgrade two of three out of 1B, SS, and 3B.
Everyone remembers, with chilling clarity and recall, the Pedro Alvarez throwing errors while at 3B and the indifferent play at 1B. The strikeouts that piled up, especially at inopportune times. But at the root of it, Josh Bell and Pedro Alvarez both share a core trait — they both get undone by their thought processes. Alvarez developed a mental hangup to throwing, while Bell is an admitted tinkerer of his swing, sometimes even from bat to bat. If you could convince me that Bell would stop being a living embodiment of a Rube Goldberg machine while at the plate, I would say the Pirates should ride it out. But he seems destined to underachieve because he gets lost in his own head.
Enter Justin Smoak. The chronic underachiever has undergone a mid-to-late career renaissance since heading north of the border in 2017. After signing a mildly chin-stroking 2 year/$8.5M deal with a 2019 option, Smoak put up his finest season by a country mile in 2017 — .270/.355/.529, 133 wRC+ with 38 home runs. He slipped a little this year, but still had a very solid triple slash of .242/.350/.457, good for a 121 wRC+ and 25 home runs. Both seasons with the Blue Jays were by far his best of his career.
The 2019 option has increased to $8M due to the cumulative number of plate appearances from 2017-18 being greater than 1100. The rebuilding Blue Jays would be wise to pick up the option, then look to flip Smoak for an asset that can help them down the line. The Blue Jays are bad now and will be bad in 2019, but they’re on the cusp of having a series of high-end impact prospects reach the Majors. Catcher Danny Jansen got a cup of coffee this past season, but Bo Bichette and all-world talent Vlad Guerrero, Jr. are on the way in 2019. The Blue Jays will need a lot more talent, especially on the pitching side where they’re dry, but come 2020 they might be frisky.
Josh Bell straight up for Justin Smoak may seem like a mismatch. You would be trading four years of team control for one year of Smoak. Somewhere, Neal Huntington is developing an eye twitch. But waiting on Bell may be like waiting for Godot. I’d prefer to make a run at it in 2019 with a 1B that has shown he can produce offense. You aren’t getting baserunning or defense with Smoak; you’re just hoping for an improvement on offense.
And if you believe in Will Craig, Smoak would hold the position down in 2019 and allow Craig time to develop in Triple-A Indy. When Smoak departs after the 2019 season, Craig can step into the position in 2020.
The switch-hitting Smoak can replicate the switch-hitting Bell at the cleanup spot in the order. He probably won’t look like he’s shot putting the ball when he throws it, either.
Again, I don’t foresee this happening. It should, but it won’t. Besides, when was the last time the Pirates traded a struggling hitter to the Blue Jays only to see him blossom into a star?