Justin Smoak knows the time is now.
If he’s ever going to turn into a breakout player in the major leagues – the kind everyone thought he would be when he was selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft out of South Carolina – this season is the most crucial of his career.
In his playing prime at 27 years old, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound first baseman for the Seattle Mariners enters his fifth season in search of the consistency that can help him reach his full potential.
In his first four seasons, including one with the Texas Rangers, who drafted him, Smoak has compiled a .227 batting average while averaging 17 homers and 51 RBIs. With a premium placed on first basemen delivering big offensive numbers, he understands that’s not good enough.
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“I’ve failed a good bit, and I’ve had to learn from my failures,” Smoak said last month. “It came easy to me in high school and college and the minor leagues, but once you get up there, you learn a lot about yourself. As of now, I feel like I’m moving in the right direction.”
While learning to navigate the everyday grind of a 162-game season, Smoak discovered that slumps can suck the life out of a young player.
“I’ll have a good two-or-three weeks, and then I’ll have a bad two-or-three weeks,” he said. “It’s more of not falling in those deep valleys and staying more consistent day-in and day-out.”
South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner, who coached Smoak from 2006-08 – when the two-time All-American set school career records with 62 home runs and 207 RBIs – communicates regularly with his former player. Tanner said the pressure on Smoak to step up became obvious when the Mariners picked up Corey Hart and Logan Morrison in the offseason.
“He understands the message has been sent loud and clear that this is an important year for him,” Tanner said. “Seattle has made a couple of acquisitions where if he’s not doing well, they’re going in a different direction with those corner guys.”
Coming out of Stratford High in Goose Creek, Smoak was a can’t-miss prospect who fulfilled all the expectations at the collegiate level by hitting .330 over 195 games.
“He was one of those guys that looked like it was easy for him,” Tanner said. “He’s just built for baseball with his size over at first base, being a switch-hitter and a left-hander. It looks like he’s cloned to play baseball.”
The Rangers agreed when they drafted him in the first round and signed him for $3.5 million. He made it to Arlington less than two years later, but after coming up early in the 2010 season, Smoak didn’t stay there long. He became a key part of a big trade that sent All-Star pitcher Cliff Lee from the Mariners to the Rangers, a move that showed what Seattle thought of his potential as well.
But a career OPS – a combination of on-base percentage and slugging percentage – of .700 ranks him well below that of most regular first basemen. He also has struck out twice as many times as he has walked – 426 to 214 – in his career. One MLB scout was quoted in The Sporting News’ 2014 preview magazine as saying, “Is he going to turn into what everybody thought? Probably not. Everyone can get him out.”
New Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon told media outlets earlier this year during spring training in Peoria, Ariz., that he expects Smoak to be his starter, although he would like to see his first baseman hitting more doubles than homers. He likes Smoak’s swing but believes that adjustments can be made for that batting average to rise and gap power to improve.
McClendon views Smoak as a player who should hit 40-45 doubles and 20-25 homers, not the other way around. Smoak’s 19 doubles in 2013 ranked him 26th among MLB first basemen. Toward the end of spring training, Smoak has earned his keep by batting .311 with six doubles, three homers and 10 RBIs in 61 at-bats.
Smoak, who avoided an arbitration hearing this spring by agreeing to a one-year, $2.63 million, believes he needs to take a more relaxed approach to his at-bats.
“That’s what you’ve got to do at that level,” he said. “The first couple of years, I’d catch myself being mad or taking my frustration out. You’ve just got to go out there and have fun. You’re playing with the best of the best, and you’re up there for a reason.”
Tanner admits that he has been surprised Smoak hasn’t hit for a higher average. He believes Smoak must be more aggressive to avoid falling into pitcher’s counts, something he hammered into Smoak as a USC freshman. Smoak’s struggles in 2012 prompted a call to Tanner from former Seattle manager Eric Wedge, who had a question for the college coach: “He said, ‘How come Smoak hit for you and he’s not hitting up here?’ ”
Tanner talked with Wedge about the differences in Smoak’s swing four years later, but he had no definitive answers except to note that he saw a little more bat wiggle and a much more pull-conscious hitter.
Smoak remains optimistic about what can happen in Seattle, which signed All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano in the offseason. The Mariners also have Felix Hernandez, one of the game’s top pitchers. Still, they have a long way to go to catch up with the Texas Rangers, Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels in the AL West.
“If some of us young guys can take the next step forward, I think there’s nothing but good things to come,” Smoak said. “It’s just about coming together as a team. You’ve got your superstars, but if you come together as a team, anything can happen.”
Tanner feels the same way about his former star’s ability to put it together.
“Smoak always hit here, and I still think it’s in there,” Tanner said. “Remember, he didn’t spend a lot of times in the minor leagues. Hopefully, this is the breakout year.”