Snuffing Smoak
Written by Jon Shields on August 19, 2012 @ 10:04PM      Jump To Comments

Getty Images Mike Carp's return to the disabled list marked the end of Justin Smoak's minor league demotion. However, a Major League future seems unlikely.
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.216/.298/.368 through two seasons' worth of plate appearances.

To the untrained eye, most hitters look like they know what they're doing when they drive the ball. With 42 home runs and 46 doubles under his big league belt, Justin Smoak has looked like he knows what he's doing at least 80 times or so over the past three seasons. It's those other 1,150-some-odd trips to the plate that are the problem. Smoak's swing has looked slow, long and misdirected throughout his Major League career, so much so that natural development leading into his prime years won't get him over the hump. Any chance that Smoak has at fulfilling his former All-Star promise likely comes in tearing down and rebuilding his game a la Michael Saunders, an uncertain path littered with hopeful ups and devastating downs.

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Smoak was the 11th overall pick of the 2008 June draft. In hindsight, that doesn't say much as the 2008 draft class has failed to impress to date, with Buster Posey (No. 5) and Brett Lawrie (No. 16) the only players emerging as stars at this point. Still, Smoak was highly regarded following a stellar stint with South Carolina, ranking as Baseball America's fifth best draft prospect that February and second-best power bat behind No. 1 overall pick Pedro Alvarez, and regarded as a steal for the Rangers by many analysts including but not limited to Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein and ESPN's Keith Law. At the time of the pick, BA wrote that he was the "best combination of offense and defense at first base" available in the draft.

Smoak joined a Texas Rangers' farm system that was quickly improving and slotted in as BA's No. 3 prospect behind Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland and directly in front of Elvis Andrus. According to the 2009 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, Smoak "project[ed] as a middle-of-the-order power hitter [with] a chance to be a superstar." He ranked as BA's No. 23 prospect in all of baseball and went on climb all the way to AAA after bashing AA pitching to the tune of a .328/.449/.481 slash line through 50 games. AAA proved to be a struggle but Smoak was on the rise.

Following the 2009 big league promotion of Holland, Smoak moved up to No. 2 in the Rangers' system for the 2010 Baseball America Prospect Handbook and No. 9 in BA's baseball-wide rankings. The 2010 Handbook was more critical of Smoak, but continued to tout him as a "switch-hitting slugger in the Mark Teixeira mold." Smoak got off to a blazing hot start in AAA and was quickly promoted to Texas, where he walked at a good clip but was unable to hit for average or power heading into his July trade to the Seattle Mariners.

Anchoring Seattle's haul for ace-of-aces Cliff Lee, Smoak saw his power bump up with the Mariners but lost the walks and began striking out at an alarming rate. Smoak was demoted late in the year but had a strong showing upon returning in September -- .340/.421/.580 over 57 plate appearances -- leaving the Mariners and their fans with hope that Smoak had settled in and would hit the ground running in 2011.

And for the most part he did. On June 23, 2011, Smoak's slash line sat at .264/.366/.488, a solid showing for the 24 year old. That half-season stands as the high point in Smoak's career, as he closed out the season by hitting just .195/.263/.276 over 205 plate appearances. What happened? The untimely death of his father was given as one reason for his struggles. Nagging injuries to both of his thumbs seemed like perfectly reasonable things to blame for his massive slump. Smoak was again demoted and again showed signs of life upon returning -- this time a .301/.354/.438 line in September -- and again fans hoped that a healthy Smoak would break out in 2012.

But it was not to be. Smoak's OPS topped out at just .709 in early June. 2012 has been Smoak's worst season by far as his walks have disappeared, his power has slumped, and his strikeouts remain a problem. Any flashes of brilliance are quickly forgotten as his slow, lumbering corpse swings blindly at pitches well beyond his reach.

Smoak was demoted again, reportedly shortened his swing during his brief stint in Tacoma and, true to form, has stroked a couple doubles and a home run in the handful of games since his return. Regardless, it's hard to believe that Smoak can turn it around enough to be a starting-caliber first baseman in the Major Leagues.

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The human element allows for anything but statistically speaking, Smoak is doomed. There just aren't any historical examples of slugging first basemen starting out their careers as pathetically as Smoak and rebounding to have a productive career, never mind the All-Star career fans hoped Smoak would have in navy blue and northwest green.

Narrowing it down to today's game, no established first basemen had struggles that even come close to resembling Smoak's. Carlos Peńa spent years bouncing around before he became an All-Star for the Tampa Bay Rays, but his story was one of being undervalued or, at worst, mediocre, but never completely overmatched. Same goes for 29-year-old breakout stud Edwin Encarnación. EE failed to live up to his prospect pedigree but was always a serviceable player throughout his career with the Reds and Blue Jays before busting out in a big way this season, a career path not unlike Jays teammate José Bautista. Meanwhile, any of the currently established first basemen who did legitimately struggle in the early going had it sorted out within half a season or so.

Smoak hasn't just failed to live up to his potential through 1,200 plate appearances, he's been really, really bad for most of them. There doesn't appear to be any historical precedent for someone of his skill set to endure that such a long drought and still come out the other end as the player he was expected to become. Even if Smoak somehow carves out a career, it will almost certainly not be as the starting first baseman of a good team.

There have been sluggers that struggle and go on to great careers, but those guys didn't struggle for as long or quite as badly. If Smoak is going to get himself on track, he'll be blazing his own trail.

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The only reason why Smoak remains the Mariner de facto first baseman is that the Mariners would rather gamble on the 0.0000001% chance that a flip switches and he becomes Mark Teixeira 2.0 than settle for their other options. Fans arguing for Mike Carp and Alex Liddi to assume the first base job haven't spent enough time looking around the league at what a real first baseman looks like. The offensive bar is just too high at first base and in no universe do Carp or Liddi possess the tools required to lead the Mariners into their next winning season.

Meanwhile, the farm system yields little hope. Vinnie Catricala, who was more of a third base/left field prospect anyhow, has had a disappointing season with AAA Tacoma after breaking out last season. Rich Poythress is having a strong season with AA Jackson, but has not displayed the power that many thought he possessed during the 2009 draft. Once you get down to A-ball, time and big, bold question marks relieve any threat to Smoak.

But there is one challenger who will be ready sooner than later: Jesús Montero. Shannon Drayer recently reported that Montero has been taking ground balls at first base during batting practice and a quote from Eric Wedge hints that the plan is to get Montero into the lineup as a first baseman at some point.

Another option at first in the future may be Jesus Montero, who often takes work there during batting practice. Wedge was asked if he could step in now if needed.

"Not yet, he's still working on it," Wedge answered. "We are not going to put him out there until we feel he is ready for it."

This is a bit of a shift from earlier in the season when Wedge said it wasn't something they were looking at and that Montero was at first during batting practice on his own accord.

While Montero's athleticism -- or extreme lack thereof -- seem to limit his potential at first base, his recent playing time at catcher -- or extreme lack thereof -- indicates that the Mariners are now convinced that his future is not behind the plate. It's natural that the team would try Montero at first base. Montero hasn't set the league on fire in his first full season as a Major League hitter but has held his own for a longer stretch than Smoak ever has. Montero has some ugly habits, but there is still hope for his bat.

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We all know better than to use certain terms when talking baseball, but it's fairly safe to say that Justin Smoak is a bust. Whether or not he builds himself a career in the coming years, the Seattle Mariners should move on the moment Jesús Montero is ready to give first base a shot. Waiting on Smoak will almost certainly delay the Mariners' pursuit of a winning season.

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