The Tampa Bay Rays signed outfielder Jake Smolinski to a minor league contract, reported Chris Cotillo of MassLive on Wednesday. Smolinski had been with the Oakland A’s since 2015, but was outrighted off the 40-man roster last month and elected free agency.
This marks the first official departure from the 2018 A’s. Several other players are also free agents, but Smolinski is the first to actually sign a contract with another club and formally close the door to a return.
The 29-year-old entered last season with a chance to be part of the plan, but nothing went his way all year. With loads of outfield playing time up for grabs in April, Smolinski was toward the top of the list of candidates to audition for larger roles. However, his bat completely abandoned him, and he went 4-for-34 in part-time action before a mid-May demotion back to Triple-A.
Meanwhile, everyone else around him broke out, completely obviating his ideal role as a righty platoon hitter who can cover center field. Mark Canha took over CF for a while and Chad Pinder thrived as the righty platoon in LF, leaving no room for another struggling righty. Then the top prospects began arriving, with Dustin Fowler getting a long look in CF and then Ramon Laureano capturing the position for keeps down the stretch. Even when Matt Joyce got hurt, out-of-nowhere misfit toy Nick Martini showed up to replace him. Smolinski last played for the A’s on June 20 and finished the year on the disabled list with a blood clot in his leg.
Add it all up, and the whole season couldn’t have gone much worse for Smolinski. He missed a golden opportunity, played the worst ball of his career, and took a downturn in health. If there’s a bright side, at least he kept mashing in Triple-A during his limited time there, so the spark of potential is still there.
Smolinski, 2018: 5-for-39, .128/.171/.205, 0 wRC+, 0 HR, 1 BB, 10 Ks
He first came to Oakland on a waiver claim from Texas in 2015, bringing along a reputation for crushing lefty pitching. In 2016 he got substantial playing time, appearing in a career-high 99 games after the rest of the A’s outfield fell apart. He didn’t hit much in the full-time role, including a .299 OBP, but at least held his own defensively in CF. There was reasonable hope that, if isolated away from righty pitching, he could be a useful fourth outfielder in part-time duty.
Unfortunately, injuries got in the way. He began 2017 with shoulder surgery and missed almost the entire season, returning only for a handful of meaningless at-bats in September. Then 2018 happened, between his own underperformance and then the clot in his leg that took him off the field. After two straight lost years, the clock finally ran out for him in the green and gold.
This news doesn’t affect the current 40-man roster, since Smolinski was already off that list. The remaining outfielders include Stephen Piscotty (RF), Ramon Laureano (CF), Khris Davis (DH), and the group of Canha, Pinder, Martini, and Fowler presumably competing for time in LF. The rest of last year’s Triple-A depth is also gone, as Boog Powell, B.J. Boyd, and Anthony Garcia all elected free agency as well, though none have signed anywhere yet.
For all the reasons explained above, this news is not the least bit surprising. The A’s have superior outfield options now, and Smolinski can find better odds of playing time elsewhere, so it makes sense for both sides to move on. But he was a member of the Oakland family for the better part of four seasons, which is a long time for us, so he deserves a moment of reflection and a proper goodbye.
Best of luck, Jake from A’s Farm! If anyone else can appreciate and optimize your marginal value, it’s the similarly new-school Rays.