Justin Smoak, Bad Good Baseball Player
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.