Justin Smoak could have been an all-timer, at least on the Pun All-Star Team. Smoak Monster, Smoak Bombs, Smoak Breaks. All we needed is him to hit a little more — well, a lot more.
The prospect hounds were all over Smoak at the front of the decade. He went 11th overall in the 2008 draft. He was the No. 13 prospect on Baseball America’s clipboard back in 2010, and Baseball Prospectus slotted him at No. 17. Smoak was considered a Mark Teixeira clone, a switch-hitting cornerman who would hit for average and power.
Smoak was given plenty of playing time though his 20s — he’s now 30 — and didn’t do much with it. His career slash is .226/.309/.399. He’s had an OPS+ over 100 — that is, better than league average — three times before 2017. The Rangers, Mariners and Jays all gave him plenty of run, without much to show for it. Very early in Smoak’s career, it was too late.
Or is it? What do we do with Smoak’s hot start in 2017? He’s currently at career-best levels for all the slash stats — .283/.333/.535. His career splits favor right-handed pitching, but this year he’s been murder on lefties — four homers in 28 at-bats, a 1.362 OPS.
The Jays have given him the first baseman job — he’s batted fourth or fifth for 17 straight games. He’s also homered in two straight games, and three of the past five.
Every fantasy season is going to have its surprises, but it feels like 2017 is a year that especially favors the open-minded fantasy player. Eric Thames, Ryan Zimmerman, Mark Reynolds, Joey Gallo, Michael Conforto, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Altherr, and Yonder Alonso are currently ranked in the Top 25 for hitter production. At what point does a good start become a good season to you? We’ll pass the one-fourth mark in games played this week.
Smoak has some interesting plate trends this year. He’s walking less but he’s also striking out a lot less (so, naturally, his contact rate is at an all-time high). His swinging-strike rate has gone down. Sometimes batters can be patient to a fault; perhaps Smoak has improved through a more aggressive approach.
Smoak has a plus line-drive rate for three straight years, and his hard-hit rate is at a personal high. He’s owned in just 10 percent of Yahoo leagues. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to try him out in a deeper league or two, see if there’s something here. The idea is to turn over the back end of your roster, see if you can unearth a gem or two.
Maybe it’s going to be another Smoak Bomb in the end. But when I see plausible upside, I kick some tires. Everyone would have laughed at Alonso a few weeks ago. Take a look in those medium and deeper leagues.
• As long as we’re talking about fantasy long shots, let’s take a look at the Washington bullpen. You know, gasoline alley. Although the Nationals have the best record in the National league, it’s come despite a horrendous relief staff (5.33 ERA, third-worst in the majors).
Sometimes relief pitchers have crazy performance changes from year to year. Maybe Matt Albers is another case in point. He’s played for eight teams in his pedestrian 12-year career, posting a 4.29 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. His ERA was over six, for crying out loud, with the White Sox last year. But something has clicked for Albers thus far in Washington: 0.61 ERA, 0.55 WHIP, one walk, 13 strikeouts.
He’s starting to get some high-leverage work as a result. He has two saves and a win over the last 11 days, including a clean handshake Sunday. No one else is taking this job and running with it. Shawn Kelley’s been a train wreck, while Koda Glover’s battled health issues. I have a few Albers shares, short-leash investments while this situation plays out. It could be an easy drop in a few days, or it could be something we hold for a while. Someone’s going to benefit from Washington’s winning situation.
• Although the White Sox couldn’t figure out Albers last year, maybe they’ve unlocked Anthony Swarzak this year. Pitching coach Don Cooper is one of the best around. Swarzak had a checkered past as a spotty starting prospect, but he’s been lights out as a Chicago reliever (19.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 22 K).
Okay, a .105 BABIP is a screaming outlier, we all know that. But that zesty K/BB ratio is a good trend to follow, and Swarzak’s also allowing a minuscule amount of square contact (5.3 percent line drives, 21.1 percent hard contact). His swinging strike rate has doubled and he’s also spiked his outside-zone swings, in part because of an improved slider. This is why we don’t like to spend too much for those non-closing relievers before the year; new value will come into the league.
Last month, we learned to stop worrying and trust Chris Devenski. Perhaps Swarzak is going to be one of May’s make-good stories. Swarzak is available in 84 percent of Yahoo leagues.
• There’s been some talk about Avisail Garcia’s start to the season in Chicago, and Leury Garcia might be getting interesting as well. The latter Garcia took over the leadoff spot five games ago, with respectable results (8-for-20, six runs, two homers, one steal). Not bad for a 26-year-old non-prospect.
Garcia is going to need batted-ball fortune, because he hacks aggressively and rarely walks (three). But at five-percent owned in Yahoo, you’re getting in cheap. Let’s see how long he can hold this spot in the order.