A year ago, Justin Smoak was the talk of the town in Seattle. Struggling with the Mariners after coming over as the centerpiece in the Cliff Lee trade with Texas, Smoak was sent to the minor leagues to work some mechanical issues out with his swing. When he returned in September, he showed everyone what the Mariners saw in him. He hit .340/.421/.580 with six extra base hits (three homers) in 14 September games, cementing his 2011 roster spot and role as a middle of the order run producer.
He carried that late season success into the 2011 campaign early, hitting .284/.393/.527 in 22 April games for the Mariners. But a strikeout-prone May and June led into an atrocious July which saw him post a .399 OPS and many fans of the Mariners were questioning if General Manager Jack Zduriencik had made a mistake in trading for the 24-year-old switch-hitting first baseman.
There was mention of possible hand or thumb troubles that were more severe than originally thought which had made those struggles more prominent in late July, but Smoak continued to play. Rumblings about his lost power blossomed everywhere. Some pointed to the fact that his minor league home run totals weren't all that great. Could it be that Smoak just wouldn't consistently hit for power, they asked?
Following 10 days of rest for various ailments in early August, Justin was back on the field for a game at first base on August 12th. He sent a well hit ball to center field for an out in his first at bat on a beautiful swing, but he then took a wicked one-hop grounder off the face in the next half inning. The ball broke his nose and a bone in his left cheek, forcing him to the disabled list.
After a brief rehab assignment in Tacoma, Smoak returned to the majors on September 2nd. But his battle with injuries wasn't over: he missed 7 more games in mid-September due to a groin strain and was limited to the designated hitter role for much of the month.
With all of his injury issues and his overall line of .236/.326/.400 in 121 games for the M's this season--not a significant improvement on the .218/.307/.371 line he posted in 2010 with Texas and Seattle--is it justified to still consider Justin Smoak a middle of the order threat as we look to 2012 and beyond?
In a word, yes.
While the full body of work thus far for Smoak isn't all that impressive, it is important to note that he has returned from struggles in each of his seasons in Seattle to post excellent bounce-back months. September of 2010 and 2011 have both been great months for Smoak at the plate. Has he done his damage against September call-ups? Not really. His three home runs last September came off of the Rangers' triumvirate of C.J. Wilson, Scott Feldman and Rich Harden, and during his most successful five-game stretch (which include those three Texas games), the other starters he faced were Tampa Bay's James Shields and Oakland's Gio Gonzalez. This season, the names he's succeeded against include Trevor Cahill, Ervin Santana, Wilson again and Luke Hochevar, among others. In other words, he is hitting legitimate major league pitching.
Two healthy Septembers, more than 125 plate appearances of data, and an OPS north of .900, with a weighted On Base Average of just under .400. Those are All-Star numbers, and numbers that are in line with his healthy April 2011 numbers, too. He's now hit 10 of his 15 home runs in 2011 in Safeco Field. The stats also say he's been at his best with runners in scoring position and in high leverage situations.
Further proof: removing just his July numbers--arguably the month he was battling the most issues (injuries and the loss of his father)--Smoak's 2011 projected to 162 games comes out to .260/.351/.454 with 33 2B, 25 HR, 85 RBI and 78 walks.
Does he still have shortcomings? Absolutely. The swing isn't always smooth. It gets long and completely out-of-whack at times which leads to those extremely high strikeout stretches. Being a switch-hitter can actually hurt him in that regard, too, as he has not one but two swings that he needs to get straightened out. He has also had periods of lapses defensively at first base which have hurt the club. But he is a 24-year-old in just his second big league season and just his fourth pro season in all.
And in his limited healthy time with the Mariners, Justin Smoak has proven that he is a legitimate power threat from both sides of the plate and that he can produce in line with the middle of the order expectations that were placed on him when Jack Zduriencik hand-picked him in the Cliff Lee trade.
We have all seen glimpses of the powerful offensive weapon that this club has lacked for far too long. Hopefully 2012 is the year where he can put together an extended stretch of success with no injuries to set him back.