If Smoak Clicks
Written by Jon Shields on January 22, 2013 @ 11:49PM      Jump To Comments

Getty Images Justin Smoak owns a .223/.306/.377 batting line through 1,421 career plate appearances across three seasons. That's hardly acceptable from a glove-first shortstop, but it's downright dreadful for a lumbering first baseman expected to be a force in the middle of a big league lineup.

Now 26 years old and a long way removed from being one of the hottest prospects in all of baseball, he remains, partially because the Seattle Mariners have lacked other viable options at first base, and partially because he is a goddamned tease.

In 2010 he hit .196/.283/.324 over his first 364 plate appearances before closing out the season with a .481/.576/.926 explosion over his final 33.

Maybe he can build off of that!

In 2011 he coughed up a .220/.317/.387 line over his first 410 trips to the plate before being demoted to AAA Tacoma and returning to hit .301/.354/.438 over 79 September plate appearances.

Maybe he can build off of that!

In 2012 he hit .189/.258/.312 over his first 458 plate appearances before breaking out to the tune of .394/.481/.697 over his final 77 opportunities.

Maybe he can build off of that!

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me third times a charm!

Unlike the rookie adjustment period in 2010 and the health of his thumbs in 2011, the reworked swing was at least something we could see. He definitely made some changes, but did these adjustments fuel his blazing finish or were they just along for the ride in another conveniently timed hot streak?

The Mariners showed that they weren't buying it with the acquisitions of Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez, but Smoak is (sadly) still their best first base prospect and will get a shot to prove himself in Spring Training. If he comes out of the gate strong the Mariners could feel obligated to play him on a roster already loaded with immobile DH-types.

It's doable, but a couple of Smoak's teammates wouldn't be thrilled.

Hypothetical depth chart with Smoak earning first base job:

C: Jesus Montero, Ronny Paulino
1B: Justin Smoak, Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse, Raul Ibanez
2B: Dustin Ackley, Robert Andino
3B: Kyle Seager, Robert Andino, Michael Morse (emergency)
SS: Brendan Ryan, Robert Andino
LF: Michael Saunders, Michael Morse, Jason Bay, Casper Wells
CF: Franklin Gutierrez, Michael Saunders, Casper Wells
RF: Michael Morse, Michael Saunders, Jason Bay, Casper Wells
DH: Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez, Jesus Montero, Michael Morse

Three small problems.

One, Ibanez gets bumped from platoon DH to spot starter/pinch hitter. A lot of people would be fine (read: thrilled) with that, but Ibanez signed with the expectation of playing time and, as classy as he seems to be, probably wouldn't be happy in that role. Are the Mariners willing to make their "veteran example" grumpy right from the start?

Two, Morse goes from part-time outfielder to full-time outfielder. With Smoak out of the picture, Morse might have been able to play first base or DH against left-handed pitching, a good thing considering his reputation as both a horrid defender and an injury prone player. (Note: This doesn't apply to the same degree if Morales is used as a platoon hitter and benched versus lefties, but that's not an assumption I'm willing to make at this point.)

Three, the above depth chart lists 14 players, meaning the Mariners would have to go with an 11-man pitching staff. It's a possibility, but the lack of stability in the Mariner rotation begs for a deep bullpen, and it's not as if the Mariners would have trouble scrounging up seven quality relievers.

Tom Wilhelmsen
Charlie Furbush (L)
Oliver Perez (L)
Carter Capps
Shawn Kelley
A swing man
That guy who inevitably emerges from nowhere during Spring Training

Never mind Josh Kinney, Lucas Luetge (L) or Stephen Pryor. There are plenty of options in the 'pen.

A 12-man pitching staff puts Wells or Bay on the chopping block. As mentioned above, Smoak out of the picture would allow Morse to play some first base or DH, which in turn would free up a few starts for the backup outfielders, the opportunity GM Jack Zduriencik might have envisioned for Bay. With many of those starts eliminated, Bay is probably out in favor of the better-defending and more versatile Wells.

Like Ibanez, this would be considered a victory for many fans and analysts, but probably isn't how Zduriencik drew it up.

Smoak breaking out -- actually breaking out -- could only be seen as a good thing for the Mariners in 2013 and beyond, but it could be hard to know what's real and what's a Cactus League mirage, and Smoak earning a spot stands to complicate things on the roster and in the clubhouse.

Personally, I would like to see Smoak start the season with AAA Tacoma, show that he can sustain success at that level, and return to the club once playing time opens up due to ineffectiveness, trade or injury. Maybe he'd be back in May, or June, or at worst late-July. Either way the short-term roster issues would be skirted and the Mariners would still have several months to evaluate him for 2014.

Do you believe Smoak will make the team? What do you expect from him in 2013?

Related:
Snuffing Smoak (Shields)
It's Time to Sit Justin Smoak (Gawlowski)

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