When the Mariners traded Cliff Lee for Justin Smoak (and stuff), we summed him up as a switch-hitting first baseman with power, patience, and a good glove. That was the generally accepted scouting report on the Rangers top prospect, who had drawn comparisons to Mark Teixeira coming out of college. In their pre-draft write-up, Baseball America said the following about Smoak’s glove:
As a first baseman, Smoak has Gold Glove-caliber actions and soft hands. His footwork and instincts around the bag are advanced and his arm strength is adequate… He is thought to be the best combination of offense and defense at first base in this draft class.
Two days after the trade, I had a very interesting conversation with a scout who had seen Smoak extensively over the last year. He told me to watch Smoak play for a few weeks, then let him know what I thought of his defense. He’d heard all the glowing reports as well, but after watching him play regularly as a pro, he wasn’t buying it. He mentioned that Smoak was one of the slowest players in the league, and had no athleticism to speak of. Generally, he just wasn’t impressed at all with his defensive abilities.
I took his challenge, and tried to watch as much of Smoak’s defense at first base when he was in Seattle as I could. I grudgingly agreed with his assessment – he was slow, the footwork wasn’t great, and I didn’t see anything that made me think he was a good defender in the making. Since he got optioned back to Tacoma, I’ve talked with a few more people who have seen him play regularly who feel the same way – they’re shocked when they watch him play, because we’ve all heard the “future gold glover” talk.
Trying to figure out what’s going on, I sought out a few more scouts whose work I respect. Neither of the guys I talked to work for the Mariners, so they don’t have a stake in his future. I was hoping one of them would point out something I was missing. Nope – just more “that guy is slow” and “I don’t get it either” talk.
At this point, I’m struggling to find anyone who likes Justin Smoak’s defensive abilities, much less projects him as a high quality defender. Speed and athleticism aren’t everything at first base – after all, Casey Kotchman might be the slowest guy in baseball – but I’m scratching my head at the reports of him being a plus glove. In the time I’ve watched him play, I don’t see it, and neither do a variety of scouts I’ve talked with.
I still believe in the bat, as the power and patience are legitimate, and he’s got enough offensive potential to be a good player even without adding much in the way of defensive value. However, I’m a little less excited about the guy than I was when the Mariners made the deal. The Mark Teixeira comparisons seem like a bit of a pipe dream at this point. A switch-hitting Justin Morneau, pre-2010 crazy breakout, is probably more along what we should expect. That’s still a nice player, of course, but that’s more of +3 to +4 win guy than true superstar.