First Base: Justin Smoak #17
25 years old; Experience: two years
By now, most everyone should know the story about how Justin Smoak came to the Mariners. But what is most important is what happened to Justin Smoak before coming to the Mariners. Because what happened to him before is what allowed him to be on the team today. Smoak went to South Carolina and had a very successful college career, but his reportedly high contract demands slid him all the way down to the 11th pick in the 2008 draft. What the Texas Rangers got was a solid defensive, switch-hitting first basemen already drawing comparisons to Mark Teixeira and Chipper Jones. No big deal, just a couple of schumcks to live up to.
Smoak blasted through AA and AAA ball in 2009 and was called up to the majors in 2010, where he struggled mightily at the plate. This probably helped make it a bit easier for the Rangers to pull the trigger and toss their prized prospect into the mix when acquiring Cliff Lee. With the Mariners desperately in need of some offense, Smoak still struggled and was sent back down to Tacoma, only to come back up to close out the year with the hitting form that all the scouts saw possible.
Last year, Smoak was seen as a big piece of the offense and he to start the season he fit the bill. Through April Smoak had a OPS of .940, but in May and June Smoak started to struggle until his batting stats bottomed out in July. He dealt with the death of his father, a thumb injury, and taking a hard hit ball directly to the face. Sometimes it is easy for fans to cast an air of indifference and say someone should play through all these things, but it is important to remember that Smoak was only in his first full season of ball at this point.
A lot of projections are pinning Smoak to be a .250 hitter with about 20 home runs. There was never much of a question of whether or not he could hit for power. The question with Smoak has always been how much power he can hit for. He has had a pretty decent spring in some regards. Smoak has been hitting the ball well, striking out less, and walking more to the tune of an OBP of .486. He hasn't hit any home runs over spring, but we all know that spring training doesn't mean much to anyone. After all, the Mariners were on top of the Cactus League - so please do not think they will be on top of the AL West. But what we can expect (and hope) from Smoak is that his more patient approach at the plate will translate to drawing more walks and finding better pitches to hit. Smoak claimed that he was trying to hit too many home runs last year, so perhaps a settled approach will realize the 20 HR potential with some solid batting numbers to go along with it.
Judging from Eric Wedge's batting order throughout spring training, it appears that Smoak will be hitting clean-up, and a .270 switch hitter with 20 HR wouldn't be bad at all. Each year that has passed has seemingly reduced Smoak's potential upside, and hitting in the cozy open air baseball graveyard that is Safeco Field makes it even harder to slug the ball over the fences. However, he is still young and still has a long time to go before the supposed prime of his career. Expect Smoak to be able to hit a bit better surrounded by Ichiro and Jesus Montero while playing some very solid defense.