Yesterday was a huge, whirlwind day for the Seattle Mariners, their fans, and the players. By all accounts, the players on the 25-man roster found out about the Ichiro trade to New York the same way most of us did -- from television or social media. They were understandably taken aback by the move. And the monumental changes to the big league roster didn’t stop when they shipped off the franchise’s career hits leader.
After the game, following a closed-door meeting in the clubhouse, manager Eric Wedge emerged to the media room and announced that Justin Smoak had been demoted to Triple-A Tacoma. Smoak, who went 0-for-3 with two more strikeouts in the game, has been struggling almost all season long, outside of that now seemingly strange stretch of games back in late-May/early-June that earned him American League Player of the Week honors. He ended play yesterday with a .189 average on the season, the lowest (qualified) in the major leagues by a long shot.
Smoak, who many considered a “can’t miss” type of prospect when he was drafted out of South Carolina, while he was coming up through the Texas Rangers organization and when he was acquired by the Mariners in the Cliff Lee trade has hit just .215/.297/.365 in 1,261 career plate appearances in Major League Baseball and just .189/.253/.320 in 375 plate appearances here in 2012 in his 3rd season in the big leagues. These struggles are becoming more than a slump or a trend, they are starting to look like a representation of Smoak’s true potential.
Jason Parks did an in-depth look at the struggles that Smoak has had in the big leagues just last month over at Baseball Prospectus (subscription required), with the guts of the article suggesting that perhaps Smoak lacks “want” -- to borrow Parks’ and BP’s favorite word -- based on feedback that he received from scouts. Here is part of Parks’ take on Justin in the piece:
“Smoak reached the majors on his raw ability, but sticking around and rising to the top requires more than just physical tools. His once advanced approach could stand in the spotlight in the minors…(but) at the major league level, Smoak hasn’t shown the ability to recognize secondary offerings…adjust his bat plane to theirs…His swing still looks the part, but if you can’t track the ball to the bat and make adjustment to the pitch…the swing doesn’t matter.”
Could that be the issue? Could Smoak simply lack the desire to compete and improve? If that is the case, he is certainly still young enough that he could change. But he isn’t still young enough that we should expect him to change or improve.
As a rough general rule of thumb, prospects are said to need around a thousand at bats before you can get a good read on them. General Manager Jack Zduriencik and Manager Eric Wedge have mentioned before how Smoak has the added complication of being a switch-hitter, so maybe that number should be tweaked, but how far? Justin now has over 2,000 plate appearances in his professional baseball career? How much longer can the Mariners wait to see if Smoak can figure it out? How much longer will they wait?
My guess is that the Mariners waiting ended last night when they sent Smoak down. Wedge said, "I believe in Justin Smoak. I believe he's going to be a part of this," and Zduriencik added, "As we said to Justin last night, 'Hey, it could be 10 days, it could be two weeks, it could be a month. A lot of it depends on you,'" but what do you expect them to say?
Smoak was demoted to Tacoma before to iron out his swing and when he returned he hit .340/.421/.580 in 14 games. While it is possible that Smoak figures out and corrects his problems while in Tacoma again this time, I don’t think it is probable. And I don’t the Mariners are counting on it as a certainty any more, either. The club likely is finished waiting on Justin Smoak. They need to move on to Plan B. If Smoak does fix what ails him and can return to the big leagues and contribute, that turns into a nice problem to have, one that the club can figure out in terms of roster construction at that point. But for now, Justin Smoak shouldn’t be penciled in to any plan going forward.
So now the question needs to turn from, “what is wrong with Justin Smoak?” to, “who are we going to get to take Smoak’s place?” With the trade deadline just a week away, the club may very well already be in the process of attempting to answer that question through a player acquisition. Could they go out and land a young but experienced big leaguer to man first base via trade? Mike Carp is headed up to join the club today, but he has had his own struggles this season, both in Seattle and in the minor leagues. And Carp is five months older than Smoak with really only about a month or so of quality big league production under his belt.
Smoak has 10 days to two months to figure it out in Tacoma and get back to the big leagues with a shot at regaining his role with Seattle. If he can’t show marked improvement in his approach and his results, he could be done in Seattle – possibly even done as a starter in the big leagues altogether. If that ends up being the case with Smoak and the Mariners, the next starting first baseman for Seattle likely isn’t with the organization right now. And Jack Zduriencik -- the man that hand-picked this “can’t miss” prospect -- would definitely be feeling the pressure of not missing on the next one.
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