Updated May 4, 2012 - 11:33 am
A trip to Tacoma could be what Justin Smoak needs
By Colin Paisley
The Mariners are now a little over a month into the season and there are plenty of familiar issues plaguing the franchise. Just how long does Chone Figgins continue to see playing time as a sub-.200 hitter? What happens at catcher with Miguel Olivo potentially out for significant amount of time with a groin injury? Will Franklin Gutierrez ever return to the lineup and be the player he was in 2009?
I could go on if you like.
But the most important question stands at the heart of Jack Zduriencik's master plan: what do you do with Justin Smoak?
Smoak is a switch-hitting first baseman with plus power potential from both sides of the plate. That's why he was drafted with the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft and that's why he was the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade between the Mariners and Rangers in 2010. We all know what he's supposed to be.
For the last two years, the organization and fan base alike have been waiting to see his "potential" turn into production. For the most part, however, that hasn't happened. The only real glimpse we've had was early last season before a series of events on and off the field -- the passing of his father, a broken nose and a thumb injury -- that understandably caused his production to wane.
On May 31 last year, Smoak was hitting .253 with eight home runs and 31 RBIs. Those aren't gaudy numbers by any means, but if Smoak can be that player for a whole season that would translate to 26 home runs and 100 RBIs. That's not too much to ask and I think Zduriencik was hoping for at least that out of Smoak by this point in his career. The problem is, the Mariners aren't getting anything close to that out of him and haven't since early last year.
Eric Wedge did make a move in Wednesday's game, moving Smoak from the cleanup spot down to seventh. That move is intended to take a little pressure off the young slugger and get him some confidence.
"I want him to be in the middle of our lineup but having said that, we've got to have more production out of those spots," Wedge said. "So we're going to drop him down for a while and hopefully that will help get him going."
But what happens if this move doesn't get Smoak right? I know Jim Moore thinks Figgins should be put on notice. The Go 2 Guy says Figgins should get a couple more weeks to prove he's worthy of more than being thrown to the scrap heap. I think the same philosophy should be applied to Smoak. Now, I don't think the organization should cut him loose, as Moore suggests with Figgins, but I do think you're at a critical juncture in his career where another year of failing to meet expectations could drastically shift how the team views its first base situation.
With that in mind, he deserves a couple weeks hitting in the seven hole to see if he can right things, but if he doesn't the next move is a trip to Tacoma. You have the luxury of being able to do this with Smoak as he still has options left so you don't need to pass him through waivers to do it. Smoak needs to not only get his swing right, but get his confidence back. What better way to do that than by taking a tour through Triple-A and battering guys akin to Luke French, Chris Jakubauskas and Aaron Laffey?
There is something wrong with his swing and he's just doesn't look like a hitter that's capable of making consistently solid contact at the plate right now. But it's not like he hasn't been able to identify the problem. It's just a matter of fixing it and that doesn't look to be something he's been able to do yet. Here's what Smoak said on "Bob and Groz" during spring training about why he struggled at the plate last year:
"My swing gets real long when I try to do too much and when you get long that's when you get in between and you get off the fastball and you're out in front of the off-speed and you're messed up. But that's kind of what happens, and this year I'm trying to stay short and quick and hit it where it's pitched."
OK, so he diagnosed that problem during the offseason and used his time in Peoria to fix it, right? Well, not really. Here's what he said a week ago after the Tigers series:
"It's one of those things where, not that I feel like I've been getting beat that much on the fastball, I just feel like I've been a little long lately and [I'm] just trying to shorten it up."
Smoak also talked about how it's been tough to get his swing right on both sides of the plate. He was asked if he was feeling any more consistency from the left side of the plate (he is a natural right-handed hitter) and said this:
"Yeah, it's more both sides. I feel like you start feeling good one way and the next thing you know you get turned around going the other way. It's just one of those things you try to get in the groove on both sides of the plate and try to get that feel."
Now, I'm not trying to say that Smoak isn't good enough to fix a problem once it is identified, but I do think he sounds like a hitter who is having a problem getting himself squared away, and if it doesn't come around soon his confidence isn't going to return magically. Add to the fact that he is a switch hitter. Mathematically speaking, fixing two swings is twice as difficult as fixing one (I didn't even use a calculator for that).
It can be argued that a demotion isn't the best way to get his confidence back, either, but he has had enough time in the big leagues to get his swing right and it flat out has not happened yet. He's a career .223 hitter with a .376 slugging percentage in three seasons and he's currently hitting even worse, batting .189 and slugging .300. That's not a middle-of-the-order bat. In fact, he's currently being out-slugged by Figgins.
Allow me to repeat that.
Chone Figgins has a higher slugging percentage than Justin Smoak.
It's not by much, but it frankly doesn't matter. There is not one single scenario that allows for a guy who is a failed singles hitter to have a better slugging percentage than the guy who is expected to be the cleanup hitter in this lineup for years to come. Not one.
Believe me, I'm rooting for Smoak to figure this out. It certainly looks like Jesus Montero will be the slugger the Mariners traded Michael Pineda for and I think we all agree that Dustin Ackley looks everything the part of a perennial .300 hitter (yeah, I know he's struggling a little bit too right now, but there's a big difference between a slump and not fulfilling your potential).
The only significant piece left is for Smoak to become the hitter he is capable of becoming and this organization can fill in the pieces around a solid core of three productive middle-of-the-order bats that actually have the ability to scare opposing pitchers. You remember what that was like, don't you?
But without Smoak realizing his potential, this organization is a significant piece away from confidently heading into the next couple of seasons as a young team on the rise.
He's (nearly) had enough time to hit his way out of this year-long slump and if he can't right the ship soon, it's time to do a little more than move him around a below-average lineup. Tacoma could be the only option left because if this continues much longer, it won't just be Justin Smoak's future that comes into question.
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