When the Mariners shipped Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers in July of 2010, the move was received with a generally positive reaction. Justin Smoak was a top prospect in all of baseball, and immediately the comparisons to another Texas switch hitting first baseman were placed squarely on Smoak’s shoulders. Did the Mariners just acquire the next Mark Texiera? Have the Mariners added their first legit, middle of the order bat since Edgar?
Smoak was probably rushed to the majors a bit prematurely by the Rangers, as he struggled at the big league level before being dealt to the M’s. Although he was drawing some walks, he was only hitting .209 in 275 plate appearances through 70 games prior to being moved. Smoak’s struggles carried over to Seattle, as he posted a .156/.181/.233 slash in July for Seattle. The decision was made to send Smoak to Tacoma to get his head right both on and off the field, after all the 23 year old from South Carolina was moved from the friendly confines of the Ballpark in Arlington, and an offense that scored at will, to cavernous Safeco Field, and was looked at as the savior to a lineup that scored less runs than any team in baseball in 2010. Smoak did what he was asked, he went back to AAA, found his stroke and showed the power and discipline we had all hoped to see with an OPS sitting at .859. After Tacoma won the PCL, Smoak was recalled in September and left us all to once again imagine what this organization might finally have. It was only 14 games, but the OPS sat at 1.001, and the Seattle fan base had something to be excited about, considering they just watched their team lose 100 games for the 2nd time in 3 seasons.
In 2011, baseball was pushed to the side as Justin Smoak’s challenges became much more serious than recognizing a breaking ball. Cancer challenged Smoak’s father in 2010, and while it was little known at the time, it eventually took Keith Smoak’s life on April 19th of 2011 at the age of 57.
Cancer is not fair, it is evil. It has hit my own family with the worst results, and I wish the experience on no one. Smoak did not lose a game, make an error, or have an 0 for 14 run. He lost his dad. That was his guy, and now he was gone. At that point, baseball was secondary, it was just a game, cancer was as real as anything could ever be for the Smoak family. Smoak took some time away from the team to be with his family, he said his goodbyes, and was able to not only be supportive to those that needed him, but be supported by those same people, because he needed a shoulder just as much as anyone.
Smoak came back and brought some success. It was a bit streaky, but we would later find out that a nagging thumb injury was affecting him, and was doing so much longer than was ever lead on by the team. Smoak spent some time on the DL in 2011 with a broken nose in August, but just like 2010 came back just in time to tease us with another solid September, flashing an OPS just shy of .800
2012 was the year. Smoak was healthy, he had experience, and had time to move forward from his off the field tragedy. Today is July 22, 2012, Justin Smoak has a slash .195/.260/.329.
This is the year, right?
Smoak is struggling from the left side and the right side, he is struggling at Safeco, and while his numbers are better on the road, they are still nowhere near acceptable.
What do we do? How long are we expected to wait for this first baseman to develop? It would be easier if we at least saw a sign that lasted more than a series, but putting together a good week or two of baseball is nowhere to be seen.
Scouts often suggest the round number of 1000 at bats, at that point, we should know what we have in a player. History has proven that number to be fairly accurate as well. For the most part, if player A has not developed into a serviceable major league contributor, will he ever? Not likely.
Player A – 1245 plate appearances .218/.301/.370 with 41 HR
Player B – 1271 plate appearances .247/.306/.382 with 30 HR
Player A is bringing a bit more power to start his career, while Player B is hitting for a slightly higher average. What we need to remember is Smoak is a switch hitter, so while we go with 1000 AB’s typically, that is essentially cut in half with a switch hitter. Smoak has under 400 ABs on the right side, and under 800 from the left. The comparison above has one player (Player A) that we are ready to cut ties on, and although I personally am not quite there, I am getting closer by the day. Player B is another switch hitter beginning his career, his name is Chili Davis.
I am not saying Justin Smoak will be great, I am not saying Justin Smoak is Chili Davis, I am not even convinced Justin Smoak will be a major league starter come opening day next April. Do not forget, there are currently no better options. Mike Carp has his average sitting below .200 in the hitter friendly PCL, Alex Liddi is not a major league contributor. Smoak is an above average glove at first base, which is helping him, especially considering the value Wedge gives to defense.
This team needs to be open to bringing in an established first baseman. They can no longer wait and hope Smoak turns out, but until that move is made, he needs to be the everyday first baseman for the Seattle Mariners. No, I do not mean a Jack Cust type stop gap, there is no point to that. This move needs to be a clear upgrade, or you might as well give Smoak the innings and hope he figures it out. Is Billy Butler someone that this team can acquire? They have shown interest as recent as late June, and they have the pitching talent that Kansas City would certainly require.
This team has many issues, Ichiro, Olivo and Figgins are all spots on this roster that are at least equal to the Justin Smoak problem, and all three are arguably bigger concerns moving forward. Justin Smoak has struggled, and he does not look like the necessary adjustments are being made. While it is frustrating to watch, we need to remember there is not a better option as things sit today. Mariners fans need to follow mlbtraderumors.com closely through the end of the month, and lets see what Jack Z has up his sleeve this time.