Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon
news

MLB News

'Competitive' edge helping Smoak flourish

After dealing with patella tendinitis, slugger hoping to continue 2017 success
MLB.com @gregorMLB

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Justin Smoak is no stranger to lofty expectations. Last year just happened to be the first time he actually lived up to them.

Smoak is coming off a breakout season that included career highs in every major offensive category. The former top prospect and 11th overall pick in the 2008 Draft finally seized his opportunity to play every day, and finally, after all this time, the early career hype matched his performance.

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Justin Smoak is no stranger to lofty expectations. Last year just happened to be the first time he actually lived up to them.

Smoak is coming off a breakout season that included career highs in every major offensive category. The former top prospect and 11th overall pick in the 2008 Draft finally seized his opportunity to play every day, and finally, after all this time, the early career hype matched his performance.

Spring Training: Info | Tickets | Gear

The 31-year-old now faces the daunting task of trying to repeat that level of production for a second consecutive year. With the Blue Jays expected to have some issues scoring runs this season, they can ill afford any regression from such a key part of the lineup.

"I've had those expectations, I feel like, every year," said Smoak, who is entering his ninth big league season. "Coming up, I was a guy everybody expected to do what I did last year, and it didn't work out that way for me the first five or six years in the big leagues. But I feel like I finally got back to what I knew I was as a player and how I wanted to feel when I was at the plate, in the field, or whatever it was."

Smoak was named to the All-Star team for the first time in his career last year on the heels of a first half that saw him hit .294/.360/.575 with 23 home runs. The problem is that the second half wasn't nearly as productive, creating some debate as to whether the first three months were a mirage or the new norm.

From Aug. 1 until the end of the year, Smoak hit just .213/.311/.406 with eight home runs and 19 RBIs. It was a significant dropoff, but one that the Blue Jays internally chalked up to fatigue and several injuries. Smoak declined to disclose the nature of those ailments last season, because he didn't want to make excuses, but he was a little more forthcoming during his first media availability of the spring.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Smoak revealed that he was dealing with patella tendinitis in one of his knees. The lingering issue resulted in Smoak slightly changing his offseason workout routine to focus on some of his muscles in and around the knee.

"I think it's just the grind of the season," Smoak said. "You're going to have ups and downs. Days you feel great and days you don't. I dealt with an issue in the past with a little patella tendinitis, and that was kind of the main thing, but I feel like I've done some things this offseason to make that better, and I just have to keep doing the things that I was doing to keep it strong and try to alleviate that pain."

Video: MLB Network's Top 100 Players Right Now: 92-90

Despite the second-half struggles, Smoak's reputation around the game is clearly improving. He was recently ranked No. 92 on MLB Network's Top 100 Players Right Now list, and he will undoubtedly be a focal point for opposing pitchers alongside perennial American League Most Valuable Player Award candidate Josh Donaldson.

With some serious question marks about the overall depth of this lineup it will be up to the heart of the order to do most of the heavy lifting. Last year, Smoak wasn't really looked at as that type of player, but he certainly is now, and for as lofty as those expectations might have been in the past, they now seem to be at an all-time high.

"I got tired of not being competitive," Smoak said. "I feel like I just wasn't competitive. I wanted to be more competitive at the plate and have better at-bats, and I feel like I was able to do that. I stopped trying to hit home runs and just have good at-bats and not worry about the outcome. I feel like that put me in a better place."

Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.

Toronto Blue Jays, Justin Smoak