March 28, 2023

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Past and future for A's on display at 3B

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TORONTO — Matt Chapman gobbled up grounders in Oakland for five seasons. A ball hit to the sure-handed third baseman was a near-guaranteed out during his time with the Athletics.

But on Friday, facing Chapman for the first time since he was traded to the Blue Jays, Oakland had a new man stealing outs at the hot corner. In a 4-1 loss to the Blue Jays, the A’s caught a glimpse of their third-base past and the potential future.

Kevin Smith, the lone position player traded to Oakland for Chapman, double-tapped the plate in his return to Rogers Centre. After 18 games for the Jays in 2021, Smith announced his Toronto return with a loud double to left field in the third inning, waiting back on a fifth-pitch fastball. With his second hit of the season and first extra-base knock, Smith showed why he’s getting every opportunity to fill the hole left by Chapman.

“I’ve been dreaming of playing [at Rogers Centre] when it’s packed for three years now,” Smith said. “It was cool to see the atmosphere and see the fans out here. But I’m more excited to just play for Oakland and do well for their fans and this organization.”

Joining the A’s halfway through Spring Training, Smith won a shot at third with a three-homer, 1.047 OPS performance in 16 spring games. After tweaks went awry in 2019, Smith worked on consistency this offseason, he said, focusing on recovery, daily routines and building off a strong ’21 Triple-A season. Though he was held hitless through Oakland’s first six games, Smith tripled his hit total on Friday with two knocks and three total bases.

“He’s put a lot of expectations on himself to get out of the gate,” manager Mark Kotsay said before the game. “We all do as players, but [Smith] has done a great job.”

Chapman, who will receive his 2021 Gold Glove Award before Saturday’s game, is no easy player to replace. One of the best defenders in MLB, he knocked 111 homers and received AL MVP votes twice during his tenure with the A’s. Smith and Chapman are different players, Kotsay said, but they have some comparable tools.

“[Chapman] is a very dynamic, very powerful, athletic player,” Kotsay said. “Just a short time with [Smith], but he’s got power, Kevin’s got athleticism. He’s a little younger than Chappy, and I’m sure he’ll grow into those tools in years to come.”

In the second frame, Sheldon Neuse slashed at a first-pitch slider, bouncing a ball to third base where Chapman stepped back, snagged the ball and fired a throw to first for the out. Four innings later, with Oakland aiming to keep things close, Smith had a chance to match his predecessor. With no outs and two on, the third baseman made the stop on a screaming grounder off the bat of Alejandro Kirk, picking and firing to second to begin a clean double play.

While four of Oakland’s Top 30 MLB Pipeline prospects are third basemen, the first to get a crack at filling the hole left by Chapman went to Smith. He’ll have to hold off prized youngsters like Zack Gelof and Jordan Diaz, but nights like Friday show why he can be the third baseman of the future, and why he was traded for Chapman in the first place.

“To get traded for someone like that is super cool,” Smith said. “It feels good to know that you’re wanted by somebody else for a superstar.”

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