Justin Smoak Complicating Matters

Dave · September 24, 2012 at 8:55 am · Filed Under Mariners 

For the first 5 1/2 months of 2012, Justin Smoak was awful. In a make-or-break year, Smoak put up his worst numbers in nearly every meaningful category and lost his spot on the roster, ending up back in Triple-A to try and fix his swing. He only got recalled to the Majors because Mike Carp got injured and they didn’t have any other alternatives at first base in the organization, so despite the fact that he was lousy in Tacoma too, he came back up before he had really gotten his act together. And then he continued to be lousy against Major League pitching.

On September 12th, Smoak was hitting .190/.260/.312 and had been worth -1.4 WAR. He was in the running for worst player of 2012. And then, out of nowhere, Smoak started hitting.

Over the last 10 games, Justin Smoak has come to the plate 38 times, and he’s reached base in 20 of them. He’s only struck out five times. He even has three doubles, which is as many as he had in the first three months of the season put together, and he’s hit the ball over the wall twice.

Five extra base hits in 10 games isn’t anything special for a first baseman, but for Smoak, it’s a pretty big step forward from what he’d done previously. And, it’s come at the same time that he’s making contact and stinging singles all over the plate, so the total package has resulted in a crazy .455/.526/.727 line that is second best in baseball over the last 14 days – only Ichiro Suzuki has been better. I wonder what the odds in June would have been for Ichiro and Smoak being the two best hitters in baseball down the stretch. Baseball is weird.

So, after 5 1/2 months of being hopeless, Smoak has given us 10 days of being amazing, and is threatening to leave a lasting positive memory of his performance on the organization going into the off-season. An off-season in which one of the main priorities is to figure out what they’re going to do at first base, because they simply can’t go into 2013 with Justin Smoak penciled in as a starter. But, now, all of the sudden, having him around to at least fight for a job in spring training doesn’t seem all that crazy, given his shorter swing and the results its producing. It’s worth figuring out if this is for real, right?

Well, maybe. Keep in mind, Smoak has done this before, and even put together a run like this earlier in the season. From May 25 to June 2nd, Smoak hit .394/.459/.879 over 37 plate appearances. He hit five home runs in eight games while only striking out six times. He won AL Player of the Week. And then it all disappeared in an instant – from June 3rd to June 17th, he hit .137/.241/.137, failing to even knock a single extra base in 14 games. Smoak’s crazy hot streak didn’t have any predictive value then, and we should be careful assuming that this one does simply because we might not have enough time left in the season to actually see the regression take place.

I hope Justin Smoak has figured something out. It doesn’t make sense that he’s truly one of the worst hitters in baseball, and it’s nice to see that he is still capable of hitting the ball hard for short bursts of time. But, I don’t think our opinion of what the team should do with Justin Smoak next year should have changed much over the last 10 days.

Because he was never optioned to the minors in 2011, he still one option year remaining, meaning the Mariners can have him start 2013 in Tacoma if they want. And they should want to. If he’s really retooled his swing in a way that will lead to long term success, starting out in the hitter’s heaven of the PCL should allow him to prove it in an environment where hitting the ball hard is often rewarded. While I’m sure these last 10 days have been a confidence boost, sustained success with his new swing can’t hurt, and he’s more likely to get that kind of confidence-inspiring success in the minors than he is in the Majors. And, to be honest, the Mariners need more proof that he really is a changed hitter, capable of racking up doubles in bunches and avoiding all those weak pop-ups he hit this year.

Back in June, I wrote that I was ready to give up on Justin Smoak. My feelings from that post still haven’t changed – the Mariners have to do better at first base next year than simply giving Smoak another opportunity. But, now, instead of shipping him off as a change-of-scenery guy, keeping him around as depth in Tacoma doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. If these changes are real, and he’s going to keep hitting in the future, having him start 2013 in the minors to earn his way back to the big leagues isn’t a terrible idea. If he lights up the PCL next April, I’m sure the Mariners won’t have a problem finding room for him on the roster, and if he doesn’t, then they’ll be happy they didn’t waste another year hoping that this is the season Justin Smoak gets hot for more than a week or two at a time.

10 days ago, it was fairly safe to write Smoak out of the team’s plans for next year. Now, he’s forced himself back into the discussion, but 10 good games shouldn’t be enough to overwhelm the months and years of failure that he’s put up previously. While I’m happy to see Smoak doing well, the M’s need to view his recent run of success with some skepticism, at least when it comes to planning for who is getting playing time in 2013. He’s hit well enough to avoid being a write-off, but he shouldn’t yet be given any kind of starring role in the team’s future plans. Now, you keep around as a curiosity and depth, but you still can’t go into next year with Smoak as the scheduled starter at first base. He hasn’t earned that, even with a really strong finish to the year.


42 Responses to “Justin Smoak Complicating Matters”

  1. Mariners35 on September 24th, 2012 9:05 am

    What about winter ball for him? If he’s figured out something in his swing, isn’t there a minor risk in him losing track of it a bit by getting hot, having all the pieces of his revised swing click, then not being in a game situation again for 6 months?

    That said, I agree that upgrading 1b is a priority this winter, and Smoak should start in Tacoma. There’s got to be a couple wins or more worth of ceiling (or at least, a reliable slightly higher floor) somewhere in trade or FA.

  2. the tourist on September 24th, 2012 9:17 am

    Maybe the Mariners ought to find someone in the offseason who can play both 1B and OF (in addition to signing someone who is strictly in the OF). That person then can start off the season at 1B while Gutierrez is healthy, and then when Gutierrez gets hurt and Saunders moves from a corner to CF and Smoak lights up AAA pitching, said 1B/OF can move to a corner OF spot. There are a few guys out there between the trade market and the free agent market who could do this. And then, if Smoak doesn’t light up AAA, you leave that player at 1B and you run a platoon of Thames/Wells as third OF.

  3. thurston24 on September 24th, 2012 9:34 am

    I completely agree with the idea of Smoak starting at AAA. Though, I wouldn’t bring him up when he starts hitting. I would keep him there for a prolonged period of time to make sure that the short stroke is permanent. If he lets his swing get long, he’s worthless so I would keep him there for at least two months but would probably lean towards half a season down there. That should be enough time to memorize the new swing. I would also bring the AAA hitting coach with him, though I would be tempted to fire the current coach and make whoever is the AAA coach a permanent member of the staff since it seems like he does a better job.

  4. 9inningknowitall on September 24th, 2012 10:01 am

    Whoever is working with the hitters to have a shorter swing is doing a good job. I’m just hoping Smoak makes himself at least a viable major league first baseman. I know he wont be an all star but if he can be solid (20-25 homeruns, 250-270 batting average and then take some walks) he could be at least a piece of a playoff caliber team. Could the Mariners get a first baseman that puts up those numbers or better. Yes but Smoak is a cheaper option if he can do it and that would allow for money to be spent in other places.

  5. stevemotivateir on September 24th, 2012 10:09 am

    ^The sad thing is that 20-25 HR’s and a .250-.270 BA is well-short of what we were expecting when we traded for him.

  6. Westside guy on September 24th, 2012 10:17 am

    so the total package has resulted in a crazy .455/.526/.727 line that is second best in baseball over the last 14 days – only Ichiro Suzuki has been better.

    Yeah, I wouldn’t have expected to read either half of this sentence going forward.

    I know he wont be an all star but if he can be solid (20-25 homeruns, 250-270 batting average and then take some walks) he could be at least a piece of a playoff caliber team.

    That would be a serious step forward for Justin, and even then it’s not particularly good for a first baseman.

    Look at our current left fielder – that’s the sort of hitter you’re talking about. Are you really going to be satisfied with a first baseman that hits like Condor?

    I suppose it’s a good thing Smoak has done this before – I’d assume it makes it that much easier for the organization to not build up (possibly) false hopes. They can, if they choose, start him in AAA next year and easily defend it to the media folks.

  7. the tourist on September 24th, 2012 10:21 am

    “The sad thing is that 20-25 HR’s and a .250-.270 BA is well-short of what we were expecting when we traded for him.”

    Actually, that’s about exactly what I expected. What I expected of Smoak when we first got him was something like .260/.375/.450 with good defense.

    I suppose I’m less disappointed than most.

  8. raul_podzednick on September 24th, 2012 10:32 am

    “Actually, that’s about exactly what I expected. What I expected of Smoak when we first got him was something like .260/.375/.450 with good defense.”

    That’s exactly what I was going to say.

    I will certainly take that with 20-25 HR’s in the post steroid era.

  9. 9inningknowitall on September 24th, 2012 10:42 am

    I would love 20-25 home runs out of Smoak a year. Olerud, who I consider a pretty solid first baseman even during the steriod era, hit 14, 21, 22 and 10 in the 4 years he was with the M’s. Yes it was closer to the end of his career but he could still hit. I know Olerud was also a GREAT defender and could hit .300. If Smoak could put up some solid home run numbers which I consider 20-25 solid, bat .260 and draw walks I’d be happy. He plays decent defense from what I’ve seen. Having a solid 1st baseman is important. Would I like to have an All Star first baseman, yes, but as we all know having all stars doesn’t mean winning all the time.

  10. stevemotivateir on September 24th, 2012 10:44 am

    The point, was that the team probably wouldn’t have traded for him, if they felt his ceiling was .250-.270.


    Please, just avoid the subject you mentioned in the last sentence. Read through the guidelines and you’ll understand why.

  11. maqman on September 24th, 2012 10:52 am

    Carp, Montero and Jaso are also possibilities at 1B, along with Smoak. I’d rather go with one of them being near league average and not paying big bucks to a free agent or trading two or more of our top ten prospects for a body that may not be needed.

  12. djw on September 24th, 2012 11:34 am

    I would love 20-25 home runs out of Smoak a year. Olerud, who I consider a pretty solid first baseman even during the steriod era, hit 14, 21, 22 and 10 in the 4 years he was with the M’s.

    This seems as good a time to remind everyone that simply counting home runs and batting average are extremely terrible ways to evaluate baseball players. During those 4 years, Olerud was worth 4 WAR a year. Turn 4 fly balls into home runs for Smoak this year and he’s got 20–and he may be all the way up to 0 WAR.

  13. The_Waco_Kid on September 24th, 2012 11:36 am

    Getting someone who can play 1B/OF would be nice, since we have a lot of question marks. Looking at our lineup, we have to upgrade somewhere, and that means Smoak to AAA, trading Montero, or someone with a good glove stepping aside. Smoak seems like the obvious choice to me.

    Looking forward to Dave’s off-season plan.

  14. DarkKnight1680 on September 24th, 2012 11:36 am

    Thought his bat hasn’t been much better, they have a guy in the organization with experience at OF and 1B who would likely be at least average defensively at either spot – Dustin Ackley. I think most of us still believe his bat will come around, and he played a full season at 1B in college and spent the rest of his college time in center.

    With Guti, Saunders, Ackley, Smoak, Montero, Jaso, and Zunino, the Ms really should be able to find a workable rotation of outfielders, first basemen, catchers, DHs, and minor leaguers. I still think they need to add a bat or 2 in the outfield, since Guti is always hurt and Ackley may never play out there, but there is some versatility there.

  15. Westside guy on September 24th, 2012 12:10 pm

    Right now, I don’t think anyone should be counting on Carp. He’s performing pretty much how people expected he’d perform, pre-2011.

    July/August 2011 may have been a fluke.

    Re: Ackley – why would you move a plus defender at second base over to first? That’s wasting talent.

  16. _Hutch_ on September 24th, 2012 12:16 pm

    This whole “Ackley to OF/1B” nonsense needs to stop. I like how Smoak gets sold short because his apparent ceiling isn’t all that impressive compared to other major league first basemen, yet some people’s solution is to move a perfectly acceptable 2B with 15HR power there. I realize it’s frustrating that all our position prospects that are potentially worth a damn are middle infielders while our holes are in other places, but pulling a sudden position switch on promising young players is not the solution. Ackley’s defense has been good-to-great and his skillset matches perfectly to the position. If Franklin/Romero/Miller all develop into major league players then we’ll have a good problem to deal with. Until then it’s short sighted to mess with one of the two things (Seager) we have going right for us in the infield.

  17. _Hutch_ on September 24th, 2012 12:26 pm

    As for Smoak, Dave’s right on. Find another stop gap solution and make him prove this version of Smoak is real in AAA. Fortunately we’ve got that stop gap in-house in Carp, who has had a bit of a lost season due to injury. Start giving one of Montero/Jaso reps there in preparation for the arrival of Zunino for insurance. I know there are some that are pulling for a Swisher or Napoli signing, but given the state of the market I’d prefer that our big ticket item be an outfielder to go along with Guti/Saunders.

  18. The_Waco_Kid on September 24th, 2012 12:36 pm

    Supposedly there’s interest in Carp. I would have liked to see him get more of a chance, but if someone wants to give us a good player for him, sure, why not?

  19. eponymous coward on September 24th, 2012 12:42 pm

    Find another stop gap solution and make him prove this version of Smoak is real in AAA. Fortunately we’ve got that stop gap in-house in Carp, who has had a bit of a lost season due to injury.

    Carp really doesn’t grade out as a dramatically better player than Smoak, if you look at their composite MiLB/MLB stats. They are basically the same player: a below-average 1B who might have a decent year or two to go in with all the “meh” ones, not enough power, not good defense.

    Carp’s lifetime numbers (.256/.328/.414) are about what I’d expect from him over a full season. I’m not really convinced that Smoak is going to go on to much more than that (and I could see him bounce back to that once his head gets screwed on straight). That’s not a particularly valuable player- a 1-1.5 WAR player. It saves you from having a Casey Kotchman disaster at 1B, but it’s not good. You shouldn’t be standing pat with a below-average player in your everyday lineup.

    If you add Montero into the mix of potential 1B, the M’s problem right now is they have 3 guys who do not profile right now as really good MLB players (yes, I know, Montero’s only 22, well, until he improves his hitting against RHP, he’s not going to be a good player- you won’t find many good players who walk in 4% of their plate appearances and strike out in 22% of them). Three different below-average 1B isn’t all that helpful compared to one GOOD 1B.

  20. _Hutch_ on September 24th, 2012 1:01 pm

    Eh, I’ve got more faith in Montero than Dave does and I’d rather hold out hope that one of the three puts it together than tie the team to the age 32 to 37 seasons of a Nick Swisher who is already showing signs of decline or a Napoli with one monster year on the resume. If they can swing a trade for Ike Davis then it’s a whole other ballgame.

  21. msfanmike on September 24th, 2012 1:49 pm

    These are the type of “complications” that I like to see. However, I do believe (unfortunately) that there is still plenty of time to see the regression occur this year. When Smoak sinks, he usually sinks quite fast.

    The best answer is in regard to the remaining option. The team should use it in concert with trying to find a presumably better player to man the 1B position going into next season. Unless some other team is just dying to trade for Justin Smoak, there is no harm in retaining him for another spring … and then starting him wherever his performance dictates he should begin next season.

    Smoak’s swing mechanics (more noticeably from the left side than the right side) are still out of sequence IMO. His uppper half rotates well after his lower half has cleared. It’s not “bang-bang” like we would expect it to be. It’s a slow uncoiling that looks like a side-winding slinky. It’s what gives his LH swing the “drag/slowness” and its why he has the stigma of having a slow swing. It’s not really a bat-speed issue. It’s a timing of upper and lower half sequence issue.

    I think the flaw can be corrected, but he has been doing it for so long – maybe it can’t be. He has been ‘hot’ lately and the drop of his hands might have helped close some of the gap with the sequence of his uncoiling issue. Or, he just may be on a hot streak/aberration.

    I am not sure why it has taken this long to correct it, but the org is trying. They are definitely trying. And, it has been very TRYING … for all of us. He is not going to ever be a major league caliber hitter if he can’t correct it … and the clock is ticking.

  22. stevemotivateir on September 24th, 2012 2:02 pm


    Nick Swisher is still worth 2.9 WAR, gets on base, and drives in runs. He’s a lefty who can play right field and first base. A five year deal would be stretching it, a lot, but I’d be on-board for a couple. The last thing I want to see is another unproven prospect brought in to fill a hole where there’s already two of the same.

  23. Rick L on September 24th, 2012 2:22 pm

    Dave, I would like you to do a post on what you think of Ackley at this point.

  24. msfanmike on September 24th, 2012 3:01 pm

    I would much rather see Allen Craig (if he can be acquired from the Cardinals via trade) or Alex Gordon (if he can be acquired from the Royals via trade) than Nick Swisher … although I agree with the need for a player who can cover both 1B and a position in the OF.

    Rosterbation – concluded

  25. stevemotivateir on September 24th, 2012 3:11 pm

    I’d much rather see either of those two as well, Mike. But it would be hard to imagine either team willing to part with those guys without receiving a substantial return.

    You hit the nail on the head, though. A player who could cover both positions would be golden.

  26. Choo on September 24th, 2012 3:23 pm

    No más humo, por favor!

  27. _Hutch_ on September 24th, 2012 3:36 pm


    I’d be all over “a couple” years, don’t get me wrong. But that’s not really a very realistic expectation given that he’s arguably the best bat on an otherwise-thin free agent market. No lesser than Dave himself saw Swisher at 5/$90 million and 7/$100 million.


    The Dodgers or the Marlins might be shortsighted enough for that, but I’ll pass.

  28. The_Waco_Kid on September 24th, 2012 4:19 pm

    No long-term contracts for players over 30 please.

  29. 9inningknowitall on September 24th, 2012 4:44 pm

    I would be all for a trade that gets Allen Craig as long as we don’t give up too much. I think he could be a solid player in Seattle, especially since he can play a lot of positions. A few years ago he played 2nd, 3rd, LF and 1st just because the Cardinals didn’t know where they would have an opening for him.

  30. gwangung on September 24th, 2012 5:25 pm

    I would be all for a trade that gets Allen Craig as long as we don’t give up too much.

    I’d be all for getting a million dollars tax free and having a hot midnight rendevous with Mila Kunis, but I don’t think I’m gonna get that.

    Similarly, I think the Cards know full well what they have in Craig…and the departure of Pujols has nicely opened a spot for him.

  31. Paul B on September 24th, 2012 5:48 pm

    Bottom line: The Mariners need a good hitter. If they can get one, they will make room regardless of what position he plays.

  32. Thirteen on September 24th, 2012 6:08 pm

    That, or they’ll move him to a position that they have room at. Which is nice, because the positions they have room at happen to be the easiest defensive positions on the field.

    Craig is great and the Cardinals know what he’s worth, but dealing Craig would be dealing from strength. They’ve got Adams and Carpenter coming up behind him, and not enough room for all three. Likewise, the Royals have Myers and Starling pushing for corner outfield slots, and while they know Alex Gordon is a great player they also know he’s blocking their best prospects. The Cardinals dealing Craig, or the Royals dealing Gordon, would be like the 2011 Mariners trading Michael Pineda: they had a great, young, cost-controlled player, but they also had great prospects in the high minors at that same position and were thus free to deal him in order to fill a need. In the case of the Mariners, that need was hitting. In the case of the Royals, the need is starting pitching. The Cardinals’ holes aren’t as obvious, but they could probably find room for any of a great reliever, an outfielder that plays good defense, a young starter, or a young shortstop.

    Good, young players aren’t necessarily untouchable, especially if they’re at positions of strength. The Pineda/Montero trade should have taught us this.

  33. stevemotivateir on September 24th, 2012 6:43 pm


    I saw the article on Swisher as well. I would actually be surprised if he took a two year deal, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up less than five. He’s a good hitter, but as you noted, he’s on the wrong side of thirty. It will be an interesting off-season!

  34. thinkfull on September 24th, 2012 11:56 pm


    I like the idea of not signing older players to long term contract, but think about when the average player reaches free agency- we can’t eliminate that option simply because those players tend to be on the bad side of 27.

    I could personally give less than a shit about the contract, I just want to see a guy who doesn’t look lost at the plate all the time. And a veteran presence is something many players respect and appreciate. Maybe a vet with a good bat is needed on the team for the (ever-incalculable) morale?

  35. The_Waco_Kid on September 25th, 2012 1:11 am

    Yeah, it all depends. 30 would be fine if it were the right player. Swisher to a 5-year deal? No way. 28-30 could work, but you’re dumb to make a Pujols/Fielder signing unless you think it’s the last piece of the puzzle in a World Series bid. Still, I’ll be pissed if Jack can’t sign some kind of reliable bat.

  36. firova2 on September 25th, 2012 10:17 am

    Interesting that as of this moment neither Fielder nor Pujols would be in the playoffs, much less making a World Series bid.

  37. bavasiisgarbage on September 25th, 2012 1:55 pm

    Curious that some scouts are somewhat “high” on Carp, according to MLB trade rumors. How high? If we gave up on him, could he become a mike morse type? This is all pure question without any research, but what if last year wasn’t a TOTAL fluke…

  38. darren_asu on September 25th, 2012 3:14 pm

    I agree with Hutch…I’m much more optimistic regarding Montero. Yes I’d like to see his K/BB rates improve…but given his age, his road numbers, and his overall OPS it think he has some great upside.


  39. bavasiisgarbage on September 25th, 2012 3:55 pm

    I also agree, Montero has a lot of room and chance to improve. We dont know what he could be, way to early to relegate him to “league-average” status.

  40. stevemotivateir on September 25th, 2012 5:12 pm

    Who said Montero has no chance to improve, or that he’s destined to be a league-average hitter? Dave certainly didn’t.

    The point, in case some of you have forgotten, is that there could be an opportunity to sell fairly high (if another team still views him as a catcher) and fill the hole at first, or even in the outfield, with a player more capable defensively.

    Montero isn’t going to be a catcher here much longer. He may not even be a first baseman. I don’t think the concern is as much with his bat as it is with his defense, but, if he’s stuck as the DH, and he doesn’t develop into the hitter we’re hoping for, what then? There’s no harm in exploring his value now. Nobody’s saying we HAVE to trade him.

  41. ck on September 25th, 2012 11:32 pm

    Justin Smoak complicates matters, on cue, with two home run game against the Angels on Tuesday…if he (Smoak) gets to the place where Wedge likes the,…”look in his eyes…”
    Jack Z. will not get another first baseman this off-season. See how long they (M’s) waited to see, hoping against hope, that Figgins would produce…

  42. joser on September 26th, 2012 1:33 pm

    “Proven” veteran, switch hitter, plays multiple positions, in line for a payday…. there’s a good chance Nick Swisher is Chone Figgins 2.0.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.