108: Smoak, Tellez, and the first base blues

Is Rowdy ready? If Justin Smoak struggles, he may have to be. (Photo: Brian McLeod/MiLB.com)

Is Rowdy ready? If Justin Smoak struggles, he may have to be. (Photo: Brian McLeod/MiLB.com)

Feb. 26, 2017

By Tyler King

Canadian Baseball Network

I know, I know, you may feel like it’s a little too early for any Tellez talk. And indeed, some of you may even think that the title of this article has more to do with some obscure, up-and-coming indie folk band than any emergent Toronto Blue Jays storyline. 

However, given the current climate over at first base (spoiler: it ain’t looking pretty) it’s at least conceivable that the name “Rowdy Tellez” will become a household one by the conclusion of spring training.

First of all, and perhaps most importantly, the 21-year-old prospect actually plays first base - and no, not like Kendrys Morales or Steven Pearce “sort of” play first base. 

Tellez has manned 1B for most of his minor league career, and if the precarious bat of Justin Smoak doesn’t pan out (which in many eyes is a very real and terrifying possibility) Tellez may be a name you’ll also be hearing come July.

After getting a taste of big league competition in his first full spring last season - where as a 20-year-old Tellez hit .176 /.222 /.235 in 17 at-bats - he then proceeded to have a breakout 2016 campaign with the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

In 124 minor league games last year, he hit a confidence-inspiring .297 / .387 / .530 with a .917 OPS and 23 home runs.

He also spent 101 of those 124 games playing first base, where he posted a respectable fielding percentage of .992 (he has a career fielding percentage of .989), and despite registering 841 putouts he made just seven errors all season.

Last year’s success sky-rocketed Tellez to 12th in the MiLB individual power rankings, and although he technically has zero big league experience, given his numbers and (no matter what flowery-tales Ross Atkins may tell you about Smoak) the lack of promising alternatives at first base, you may be prompted to ask, “Why haven’t I heard more about him already?”

Currently MLB.com and FanGraphs both show the Jays 1B depth chart as reading Smoak and Pearce, followed by Morales. 

In a radio interview back on Feb. 14, manager John Gibbons also confirmed the pundits’ predictions, stating that if the season started tomorrow, Smoak would be his first baseman.

But for the sake of argument (and amusement), lets pretend the wide-eyed, hopeful fanbase was the braintrust calling the shots, and that Rowdy Tellez got a fair look. And to stretch this fantasy even further, lets also pretend Tellez produced numbers similar to those from his past minor league campaign if he were promoted to the big club ...

Would he really be that much of an upgrade compared with Smoak?

On the defensive end, that question has a pretty straightforward answer. For all his free-swinging faults, Smoak is undoubtedly a competent defender.

In 101 games (79 starts) at first base with the Jays last season, Smoak had a fielding percentage of .996. To put that in perspective, Joey Votto, the first baseman everyone north of the 49th was hoping the Jays would miraculously repatriate and acquire in the off-season, has a career fielding percentage of .993. 

(To be fair, it’s important to remember that defensive success at first base has a lot to do with who’s throwing to you, and Smoak does have the god of defensive shortstops in Troy Tulowitzki making things easy).

Even though Tellez can also field his position, it would be difficult to argue that Smoak wouldn’t be the better option here, even if only marginally.

But, on the other hand, does anyone out there really give a crap about defence ... ? (I mean, boringggggg.)

For years the Jays identity, rightly or wrongly, has been about one thing - mashing dingers. 

Over the past three seasons the Jays have ranked second, first, and first in the American League in total home runs. And it’s here, on the offensive side, that most people feel the Smoak - Tellez debate could possibly get interesting.

It’s worth noting that Smoak and Tellez are physically similar (and by similar I mean they are essentially the exact same person). Clearly they are big dudes capable of hitting the long ball, but according to baseball-reference.com they are, oddly enough, both exactly 6’4”, 220 pounds.

They each also provide a much needed left-handed bat in the Jays right-handed dominant lineup (with Tellez being a lefty and Smoak being a switch-hitter).

But for all the similarity in their strengths, the freaky comparison also seems to extend to their greatest weakness:

 They strikeout ... like, a lot.

Last season there may have been nothing more frustrating for fans than watching Justin Smoak come to the plate with men on and less than two outs. 

Smoak hit .217/.314/.391 with a .705 OPS in 299 plate-appearances, but he also had an incredible 112 strikeouts (nearly one in every three of his plate appearances ended with a big fat “K” on the scoresheet).

Unfortunately, those strikeouts negated what was an impressive 14 home runs, given his limited at-bats. Over the past two seasons, Smoak has averaged a home run every 18.6 at-bats, which puts him in high company with some of the game’s top power-hitters (former Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion - *tear* - averaged a home run every 14.3 at-bats in 2016).

But clearly the young Tellez also has a lot of pop in his bat. His 23 home runs (in 438 at-bats) were the fourth most in Eastern League last season. But, just like Smoak, that power comes with the big caveat of 92 strikeouts.

In two games this spring, fans have already been privy to some of Tellez’s inconsistencies. In his first spring training game on Saturday against the Atlanta Braves, he went 1-for-2 with a walk and two runs scored. But he followed that up on Sunday by by going 0-for-3 with three strikeouts in a split-squad game against the New York Yankees.

In Smoak’s first and only spring game so far, he went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts ... 

Meaning it may not matter who you put at first, when they step to the plate brace yourself for some strikeouts - both during the spring and beyond.

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Follow Tyler and #Section108 on Twitter: @TylerJoseph108