Justin Smoak, Bad Good Baseball Player

Jeff Sullivan · October 28, 2014 at 3:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Looking back, it’s pretty remarkable the Mariners were able to get Justin Smoak in the first place. Cliff Lee had just three months left on his contract, and, granted, he was amazing, but that’s not a lot of time. The Mariners turned him and Mark Lowe into three guys and Smoak, and Smoak at that point was a 23-year-old starting first baseman for a World Series contender. He was very highly regarded, having recently been ranked the No. 13 prospect in baseball, and if the Rangers had issues with him, he probably wouldn’t have been starting for them. The Mariners made a good trade. They didn’t get what they wanted out of it. Neither did the Rangers. Book’s closed now.

With Smoak going to the Blue Jays on waivers, none of those players are left with Seattle or Texas. Yet don’t let it be said that the Mariners didn’t get anything out of the deal. I don’t know what Matt Lawson was, but Josh Lueke was sure as shit a memorable experience. We all formed opinions of Blake Beavan, and we watched Smoak bat almost 2,000 times. What the Mariners gave up were potential memories of Lee and Lowe. What they got in return are memories of different players. Relatively few of them are good memories, but all the memories woven together inform or even make up our fanhood, and we’re all still here. There’s something about this we’ve liked, and Smoak was a part.

We all knew this was coming. One way or another, Smoak wasn’t going to be a part of the 2015 Mariners, not given what he’s done, and not given what Logan Morrison did. I wasn’t sure exactly how Smoak would go away, but this feels appropriate, a quiet press release announcing the news before maybe the final game of the World Series. Smoak wasn’t traded for a player. There’s nothing to continue the transaction tree. Smoak was exchanged for the right to not have to pay him anymore. With the money saved, the Mariners might invest in a different player, or more coffee-cup lids for the office. Some of those newer eco lids have a real problem with steam.

I probably don’t need to review Smoak’s accomplishments in Seattle. I don’t need to include a paragraph or two of statistics. You might already have them memorized, and even if you don’t, specifically, you do, generally. Smoak sometimes was good, but almost never good enough. He reached a few incredible highs, but the same could be said for most underwhelming players, because players fluctuate in two directions around their averages. Smoak achieved the same WAR in a Mariners uniform as Rey Quinones. In Mariners plate appearances, he ranks between Dustin Ackley and Ruppert Jones. He might get passed by Michael Saunders in April; he also very well might not.

If you were to watch Smoak in batting practice, you’d see an awesomely talented hitter. The Mariners know that, and the Mariners have long known that, but there’s raw talent and there’s game talent, and Smoak hasn’t translated enough of the former into the latter. The Mariners have worked with him. Oh, how the Mariners have worked with him, in the minors and in the majors and on the off-days and on the gamedays. No player Smoak’s age is completely out of promise, but the more time that passes without everything clicking, the less likely it becomes that things ever fully click. Last spring, the Mariners believed in Smoak’s odds. They don’t anymore, but the Blue Jays do. They can both be right, I suppose — not every team is identically patient, or identically hopeful.

The numbers declare that Smoak hasn’t been real good. What they suggest is that he’ll continue to not be so good, until he exhausts his opportunities. It’s very possible he’s only one tweak away. That kind of thing wouldn’t show up on someone’s Baseball-Reference page. The Mariners just never found the tweak, and it’s not like Smoak is the only guy out there with promise to do better. Everyone around major-league baseball got to that level for a reason. Everyone is either good or a project. This project, locally, is over.

There’s something that I think is easy to forget — when a player struggles to make adjustments, it isn’t only frustrating for the team and for the fans. It’s also frustrating for the player, and quite possibly the most frustrating for the player, because it’s that player’s career, and he can tell when he’s not doing enough. I’m not sure how Smoak evaluates himself. Maybe he’s all about batting average and RBI. That would be silly, but since he’s at .224 and 234 for his career, it’s not like he’d be missing the point. Justin Smoak understands that he hasn’t been a good-enough baseball player to this point. Earlier in his career, he might’ve embraced the challenge, even been kind of thankful for it. Now it’s not just a front office that might be thinking about wasted potential.

For Smoak, this is probably getting scary. He knows how much work he’s put in to get better, and he knows it hasn’t paid off. He knows he’s running out of time, and he knows he might never have a better opportunity than the one that just officially ended. As long as he was still with the Mariners, at least there were the elements of a familiar routine, but now he’s moving, to a different team in a different city in a different country, and that has to be cold and startling. Smoak has a family, with a very young child, and now the family life is changing, and eventually it might cross Smoak’s mind that this wouldn’t have happened if he’d performed better. Maybe that’s already been on his mind; maybe that’s the only thing on his mind. What do you do when you don’t understand why you’re not good enough? Smoak just spent more than four years with an organization that couldn’t get him going in the right direction. And they gave everything they had.

Overall, this was basically a predictable move, in that Smoak no longer had a role in Seattle. As a Mariner, most of the time, he disappointed, and that was disappointing. I’m hopeful that, going forward, the Mariners will have better baseball players, so they can look like a better baseball team. But while I’ve never personally been in Smoak’s situation, here, I have wondered on many occasions what I’m doing and why I’m not better at it. I’ve had everything changed in the blink of an eye, and after the fact I’ve recognized that everything was preventable, if only I’d done more, and done it well. A failure is just a gut-wrenching learning experience, so Smoak will emerge the better person for this, but I’m not sure he’ll emerge the better ballplayer. I’m not even sure that anyone would notice.

Weird day. On to the next thing, for all of us.


32 Responses to “Justin Smoak, Bad Good Baseball Player”

  1. Westside guy on October 28th, 2014 3:33 pm

    Well, Justin has been paid a few million dollars by the Mariners – unless he was completely stupid about money, he won’t have to worry the way most young fathers do about their job stability. He’s mediocre’d his way into being set for life.

  2. ivan on October 28th, 2014 4:21 pm

    “Smoak achieved the same WAR in a Mariners uniform as Rey Quinones.”

    Amazing how that works out sometimes. WAR can’t possibly ever measure the “tease factor,” but for those who don’t remember Rey Quinones, he was every bit the tease that Smoak was, although not for as long.

    He was a brilliant shortstop, damn near at the Brendan Ryan level defensively. His problem was that he didn’t want to be a baseball player. And soon enough after leaving here, he wasn’t any more.

  3. Eastside Crank on October 28th, 2014 4:30 pm

    It was Justin’s bad luck to be traded to the Mariners. If he stays with the Rangers, he gets to work with one of the best batting coaches in the business in a very hitter friendly park. Instead, he gets traded to the Mariners and plays in one of the least hitter friendly parks in baseball. And then he is told that he needs to hit with more power. Without the benefit of PEDs. He never had a chance. I expect him to turn things around in Toronto.

  4. bfgboy on October 28th, 2014 6:17 pm

    He never would have done anything here, but going to Rogers whose park factor for power is the third highest in the majors, should be a nice boost. Twelve feet closer in the power alleys turns a lot of those warning track shots into positives in tbe box score. Plus, if they let him focus on one side of the plate, he may have a better shot. I predict he ends up being to Toronto what second-half LoMo has been to us…which is serviceable.

  5. LongDistance on October 28th, 2014 11:26 pm

    Expect that Smoak will do a semi-Morse of some sort. Moving on……

  6. maqman on October 29th, 2014 6:57 am

    This may not be his final destination. The Blue Jays have been known to claim guys and flip them.
    If they keep him they have to pick up his $3+ million option or offer him arbitration.

  7. Longgeorge1 on October 29th, 2014 7:20 am

    Well I expect to see Toronto in the Series next year with some first baseman that “turned around his career”, but I am glad he is gone. It wasn’t going to happen here.
    Nice to watch two teams that know how to put the bat on the ball. Maybe a couple of M’s are watching.
    At least we came close this year.

  8. Edward Baker on October 29th, 2014 8:32 am

    Hoo-bleedin-ray! The little world of Mariners baseball just got better. We no longer have poor Justin to kick around. Not to worry, there will be fresh candidates.

  9. Edward Baker on October 29th, 2014 9:09 am

    A post-datum: reading the piece in today´s Seattle Times on Smoak, I´m reminded that he had one remarkable quality, his OBP, which was higher than that of most of the Mariners´ post-Ichiro lead off guys. For a guy who over nearly five years proved year after year that he could not hit Major League pitching, he had an amazing sense of the strike zone. He didn´t chase breaking stuff all over the place. What he couldn´t hit were strikes, but in a disciplined way he drew a lot of walks.

  10. roosevelt on October 29th, 2014 12:35 pm

    The sad reality is that most well thought of prospects turn into journeymen players at the MLB level.

  11. Oolon on October 29th, 2014 3:22 pm

    Nice article. Well written and thoughtful.

  12. mrakbaseball on October 30th, 2014 12:56 am

    To Bfgboy, remember Safeco’s fences were brought in before the 2013 season. It’s 378′ to left center and 380′ to right center now.

  13. Westside guy on October 30th, 2014 1:51 pm

    Justin Smoak’s last three years OBP were .290, .334, and .275. If that’s better than the leadoff hitters we’ve employed, that serves more as an indictment of our leadoff hitters rather than an endorsement of Justin Smoak’s on-base skills.

    .334 in 2013 was certainly pretty decent, and coincided with the only season he’s put up a wRC+ greater than 100 (okay I suppose I should also mention 2011, when he reached 103). But for a 28-year-old first baseman? Hopefully the team can do better.

  14. smb on October 30th, 2014 9:35 pm

    Did’t he and Kristin just welcome their first kid recently? I hope he succeeds, and I promise I won’t even be mad about it. Just would like to see a couple nice people not have this dream die on them so quickly afrer his journey here is ended.

    Here’s to at least a few more years of regular Smoak ABs in the majors, just mercifully no longer in an M’s uni.

  15. heyoka on October 31st, 2014 12:26 pm

    Is first base the new left field?

  16. lokiforever on October 31st, 2014 4:00 pm

    Stan Javier thinks so

  17. Longgeorge1 on October 31st, 2014 8:12 pm

    Are the Cubs the new Rays?

  18. naviomelo on November 1st, 2014 3:53 pm

    Joe Maddon thinks so.

  19. LongDistance on November 2nd, 2014 4:57 am

    Are the 2015 Mariners the 2014 Royals?

  20. crowhop85 on November 3rd, 2014 10:30 am

    Thought I just read he was released…

  21. Woodcutta on November 3rd, 2014 12:32 pm

    Billy Butler thinks so.

  22. Bremerton guy on November 3rd, 2014 7:39 pm

    I read in the MLB Transactions over the weekend that the Blue Jays declined Smoak’s option. Does that make him a free agent?

  23. Bremerton guy on November 4th, 2014 8:25 am

    I figured out the answer myself. He’s still a Blue Jay and his salary will be set in arbitration.

  24. Mariner.lovechild on November 4th, 2014 9:20 pm

    Let’s get a Kyle Seager Gold Glove post going, whoop whoop! Total respect for that guy!

    (And also: wow Alfonso Soriano calling it quits. What a career, especially those early years.)

  25. Westside guy on November 4th, 2014 10:00 pm

    Whoop whoop! Atta boy Kyle!

  26. Longgeorge1 on November 5th, 2014 8:31 pm

    There has been a lot of leather flashed at 3rd for the M’s the last few years. I think Kyle has had the quickest hands I have seen at that corner, well above average range and an extremely accurate arm. I will agree he has shown strong improvement, but I was never able to fathom the “numbers” that showed him as below average until this year. Way to go KYLE! We don’t need no stinkin’ Panda!

  27. ivan on November 6th, 2014 3:20 am

    Watching Adrian Beltre play 3B for five years here spoiled us. I wish him good health for the next 2-3 years as he makes his bid for 3,000 hits and the HOF. For Seager to shine defensively as he has done, despite not switching to 3B until after he was in the majors, is a very big deal.

  28. Mariner.lovechild on November 6th, 2014 8:15 am

    Gotta love Beltre, back then he was my favorite player. Definition of solid.

    And yeah good point, wasn’t Seager a middle infielder? Just great development. Really putting up some nice production offensively too. Hope he gets that average up as well, but no complaints!

  29. globalalpha on November 6th, 2014 5:45 pm

    So, no lookout landing offseason plan is forthcoming. Any chance we get Dave’s Offseason Plan posted here? It’s the only thing I haven’t to look forward to! Although last years edition made it sound like he was pretty well close to being done with it for good. How else will I know whether to laugh or cry at the 2015 foibles of Jack Z?

  30. MissouriMariner on November 7th, 2014 10:22 am

    I too am hoping for an off season plan from Dave. It is always my favorite article of the off season.

  31. mrakbaseball on November 7th, 2014 11:45 am

    Michael Saunders, good luck with your new team.

  32. seattleslew on November 7th, 2014 12:26 pm

    The M’s need a crash course in PR. Michael Saunders will be shopped heavily after Mac and Jack badmouth him. Another case of buffoonery from the front office.

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