Today the San Francisco Giants are the champions of major league baseball. The offensive juggernaut San Francisco Giants? Hardly. The Giants hit 103 home runs, fewest in the major leagues. Hey Mariners, move those fences back out!
When you see how much the Giants progressed in the last five years, it's not hard to envision certain other baseball teams getting better. Even, yes, the Seattle Mariners. The Giants had their fourth straight losing season in 2008 and officially moved out of the Barry Bonds era and into the Bruce Bochy, Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain era. They were no longer "a superstar", they were becoming a team.
Cain, Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval, Posey, Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, and Madison Bumgarner formed a mostly-young core that won the title in 2010. A few solid young hitters, a great rotation, a solid bullpen, several big surprises like Ryan Vogelsong and Marco Scutaro, have propelled the Giants to two championships in three years. Even when Lincecum faded, when Melky Cabrera was suspended, when Wilson got hurt.. they came together and won it as a team that mostly grew up together.
This is what the M's, like many teams, are hoping for. But can they?
Two major parts of the puzzle are Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak. At least, that was originally what they were brought in for. As top 20 prospects that were acquired as the number two pick in the draft and as the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade, Ackley and Smoak were the building blocks of a lineup that would be so potent you'd have to see a doctor if it lasted for longer than four hours. Well, you know what they say about best laid plans.
After 355 career games, Smoak is hitting .223/.306/.377. The bat that was supposed to turn into Mark Teixeira has skipped all of Tex's good years and gone straight to the bad.
Ackley, the can't-miss hitter, missed. He drove Missed Daisy and hit .226/.294/.328 in his sophomore season.
However, it's not all bad. It's not all good, but it's not all bad. As we continue this series, last looking at Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager, here are two more core pieces of a lineup that's supposed to get better. Small sample sizes be damned, I need some hope.
The Best: Aug 14 - Oct 3 - 42 games, .288/.375/.475, 6 HR, 8 2B, 26 K/20 BB, .315 BABIP
The Worst: Mar 28 - Jul 23 - 90 games, .189/.253/.320, 13 HR, 6 2B, 85 K/29 BB, .211 BABIP
I will make this really simple for Smoak and split it into two parts of his entire season: Before he got sent down to Tacoma and after he was called back up. Even in Tacoma he wasn't that good (.242/.390/.364 in 20 games) but he did draw walks in his limited time there. When he came back, there was a significant difference in his production.
BABIP and word choice be damned, Smoak plain sucked in his first 90 games. He earned the demotion. When he came back, he earned another shot to start 2013 at first base. He hit two more doubles after he came back than he did before he was sent down, and he did it in less than half as many games. He dramatically reduced his strikeout rate, got on base at the level we used to expect, and even if he never hits 35 home runs, we'd much rather have him around hitting .280 with 20 home runs, than hitting .190, period. I don't care if it comes with 40 home runs, if we wanted Adam Dunn we'd go get Adam Dunn.
Smoak really put it together in the final month of the year, hitting .341/.426/.580 after August. But we aren't asking for that for a whole season. We don't expect you to be Miguel Cabrera.
Just stop sucking.
The Best: Apr 25 - Jun 1 - 33 games, .260/.345/.405, 3 HR, 8 2B, 5 SB, 0 CS, 30 K/ 17 BB, .316 BABIP
The Worst: Jun 2 - Oct 3 - 103 games, .212/.277/.303, 8 HR, 11 2B, 7 SB, 2 CS, 80 K/37 BB, .245 BABIP
Oh boy. This was honestly the best I could do for Dustin as a hitter. Maybe I'll distract you for a little while by saying that he's turned into a pretty good fielder. Ackley is actually turning into like the exact opposite of what he was supposed to be as a prospect.
Strengths used to be plate discipline. He walked 15.7% and struck out 11.7% of the time in 82 double-A games in 2010. "He knows the strike zone better than the umps do." Yeah, well.. the umps suck too. In 243 career games, Ackley is striking out 19.4% of the time and walking 9.5%. He reduced strikeouts in 2012 but also walked less.
We wanted a guy that could hold his own at second base, walk 15% of the time, hit .290-.310, some years maybe compete for a batting title, steal 25-30 bases, hit 10-15 home runs, and just be one of those special all-around leaders. I kind of pictured a Grady Sizemore of the infield. Instead we're getting a Grady Sizemore of 2012 except not injured.
Ackley finished the year hitting .226/.294/.328 with 12 HR, 13 SB, on a .265 BABIP. He made more contact in 2012 than he did last year, but hit fewer line drives and more groundballs, so maybe he should have made less contact.
When it comes to prospects, I'm almost always one of the last guys to abandon ship. Ackley is turning 25 next year, he's got a lot of time to get better and I think he wants desperately to do that. But he also went backwards in his second season and he offered few rays of light during the season, unlike most of the M's struggling young hitters. It's very likely that 2013 will be Ackley's make-or-break year with the M's and the fans, because we all figured and expected that he'd be better than this.
We've already got our staff ace with a perfect game, a la Matt Cain. We need him to be our Buster Posey.