By Brent Stecker
Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak has been a lightning rod among Seattle baseball fans for the better part of three seasons, as the run-producer he was expected to be after being the centerpiece in a trade that moved ace Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers has seldom been seen.
Justin Smoak has five home runs and 14 RBI since returning from injury on June 18, but his career batting average is just .231 in 1,490 at-bats. (AP)
Smoak, 26, has quieted a lot of the concerns around his hitting by dominating opposing pitchers over the last month, however, raising his slash line to a respectable .272/.372/.431 with eight home runs and 22 RBI at the All-Star break. But not everybody has been converted, as ROOT Sports analyst Bill Krueger made abundantly clear on "Bob and Groz" on 710 ESPN Seattle.
"I think if you had a tryout to take 1,500 swings in the big leagues, there's a lot of guys that are floating around the minor leagues that can hit," Krueger said, alluding to Smoak's career average of .231 in 1,490 at-bats. "Twenty-two RBI at this point is probably not gonna get it (done), and his power numbers are going to have to improve."
Krueger compared Smoak to the Pirates' Garrett Jones, a serviceable 32-year-old first baseman, but certainly not a household name.
"If you looked up (Jones') bubble-gum card and see what he's done the last five years, he had 23 (home runs) and 79 (RBI), 24 and 82, 27 and 76 -- and about a .270-plus average. Do you know what he is? He's average. We're not even getting average play at first base."
Smoak appears to have the first base spot locked up at least through the rest of 2013 in Seattle, and because of that, Krueger isn't completely writing him off yet.
"You're rooting for him. He seems to be hitting with a greater level of confidence, and once he got over his injury he's been pretty steady (hitting) left-handed, and now he's starting to hit a little more with guys on base," said Krueger. "His confidence is higher and his batting average is more what you want it to be. … He's a really great kid, he's got a great attitude, I think he wants to win, he wants to do well, he looks the part, he plays a good first base, switch-hitting is a nice added piece. And you know what, he's gonna get another half a season to see what happens. I hope it continues to go that direction."
While Smoak's offensive numbers haven't been consistently great, he has made a name for himself with his defense. But as nice as that is, Krueger said it's not enough.
"Yeah, you love to have the glove over there, (and) Justin's got a good glove. He's a smooth player. But we'd take a statue over there if he could hit," he said. "You're looking for a guy that can scoop the ball and make the plays, and he makes them. He makes the average play and he makes the tough play. He's a great fit in the infield, he's a great target, so I'm with you there. It's just that there isn't a lot of room for under-production there. ... First base is a no joke-around position. You gotta have more (offensive production)."