Justin Smoak’s first half success is bringing magic, potential to the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays

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When the Toronto Blue Jays lost Edwin Encarnacion in free agency this winter, the power hitter’s absence was expected to leave a void the club couldn’t possibly replace — and with good reason.

Before leaving for Cleveland, Encarnacion reached the 30 home run mark in five consecutive seasons and hit an instantly famous home run to send the Blue Jays into the 2016 postseason.

Encarnacion’s production and his importance to the Blue Jays lone boom period since winning back-to-back World Series crowns in the early ’90s was irreplaceable. However, the American League’s biggest success story of the first half of the season is doing his part to make fans in Canada forget about the loss of Edwin.

Switch-hitting role player Justin Smoak’s turn from a defensive first baseman into one of the top power hitters in baseball is finally drawing attention south of the border, as the Jays surge from the cellar back into the AL Wild Card picture.

In the Jays three-game series against the Oakland A’s, Justin Smoak’s hot first half rose to new heights and his home run total hit an earth-shattering 17 for the season after a two-dinger game to close Toronto’s trip to the Coliseum with a 7-4 win in extra innings.

Smoak’s two home runs, along with former A’s star Josh Donaldson’s two-run home run in the top of the tenth, allowed the Jays to prevent a crushing series sweep against the AL West cellar dwellers; an important win considering the Jays are still at the bottom of their own division and desperately attempting to climb out of the hole they fell into after an injury-filled April that left some eulogizing the two-time ALCS participants.

While the likes of Troy Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales, and Donaldson suffered injuries to start the season, Smoak showcased a newfound discipline at the plate that is the biggest catalyst to his first half success.

Long the bane of Jays fans for his high strikeout rate on a team filled with high-end hitters, Smoak has lowered his strikeout rate from a disappointingly high 32.8% in 2016 to a pristine 18.2% so far in 2017; a number well below the league average of 21.5%, and indication of Smoak’s dedication to make a change at the plate in order to fill Encarnacion’s void.

Striking out less and passing at bad pitches far more frequently, Smoak now gets better pitches to hit and the ability to showcase power at the plate that was always there throughout his career. Smoak’s 2017 discipline also gives some indication towards an ability to carry his hot streak at the plate over the course of the entire season for the Jays.

A key to the Jays chances of clawing their way back into a second-half race with their AL East rivals for a third consecutive playoff appearance. The ultimate goal for an aging Blue Jays roster that is desperate to exorcise their ALCS demons with a long desired pennant and World Series appearance for a country of Jays fans who long for the feelings of 1993 to come back to Canada.

If Smoak can continue to replicate his performances from the spring into the summer and beyond, he will also give the Jays front office plenty of financial flexibility to re-tool the roster with a budget first baseman in place. Smoak is under contract for $4.1 million in 2018 with a team option for $6 million in 2019. Those are extremely team-friendly numbers if Smoak hits 20+ home runs in his next two seasons — let alone if he can carry over his pace into the remainder of his contract, which would contradict the bulk of his career.

At this point, however, anything appears possible for a burgeoning cult hero in Toronto’s lineup.

In the meantime, Justin Smoak’s improvement and production have earned all the praise (and apologies) sent his way.

An All-Star appearance and career-high numbers are inevitable at this point. It’s difficult to not get carried away with a storybook ending for a player who once frustrated, but who now captures the heart of an underdog Jays team looking to remain relevant for at least one more year.

Finally healthy and receiving plenty of unexpected production from a player who was once viewed as a liability, Smoak and the 2017 Blue Jays appear to have magic brewing in early June. Left for dead in the opening month of the season, the fact so much positivity surrounds this Jays team a month out from the All-Star break — and the red-hot Smoak — is enough to get excited over one of baseball’s most captivating teams.