Will Cano change the M's plans for Smoak?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Ken Griffey Jr. has some thoughts about Justin Smoak.

I spent the entire day yesterday glued to my phone, following the Cano news and somewhat foolishly hoping the next big Mariners story would unfold on my Twitter timeline mere moments after they had just acquired the biggest free agent on the market. I guess that's what happens when you get a week of BREAKING: stories following a Tuesday that saw everyone in Major League Baseball playing musical chairs.

And even though I didn't get to see Nick Franklin shipped off in the afternoon, there was still some pretty great stuff going down on the intertubes all day. There was a shirsey burning video that should be put in a museum for future of humanity after the apocalypse, when you are having trouble explaining what New York was like to your kids. Jeff Sullivan once again found a way to take the cautious optimism I was feeling about the Mariners and articulate it much better than I could at the time. Dave Cameron did his usual I-can't-be-swayed-by-shiny-toys-thing that snuffs out the baseball childhood wonder in the pit of my stomach, but that's good because we can't be four forever.

And then late in the afternoon, Shannon Drayer posted a really fascinating piece quoting reactions to the Cano signing from the Mariners' camp. Ignoring how wild it would be to say that part of your job is to call Ken Griffey Jr. after the Mariners sign Robinson Cano, because holy shit, it's a really fascinating piece when you dig into it. Harold Reynolds is doing his usual see-it-so-I-know-it thing, Tom Verducci is actually on board with the signing, and Ken Griffey Jr. thinks Justin Smoak is Chris Davis. Wait no, I want to talk about Robinson Cano! Read on--

I am a firm believer that Justin Smoak can do it. He just needs to settle down. You have got to remember that he is a switch-hitter and that is double problems. They talk about Chris Davis; he is Chris Davis. I am not trying to put any pressure on him but he has a good eye and he will hit.

Okay first, I'm going to stop you right there. We've all given up on Justin Smoak, it seems, and while I'm not putting my hat back into the ring, Griffey is actually an interesting person to talk to about this. The numbers people might have my head for this, but all that mental stuff really is a key factor to hitting, those stupid little mental things that can't be understood or measured do have enormous effects on a hitter's ability to go out and hit. Here's more:

He's had four hitting coaches in four years and he is trying to figure it out and trying to please everyone. Just settle down and go out there and have some fun. It's not fun when you are struggling, but it is in there.

Griffey has been there in Spring Training, watching hitting coach after hitting coach probably take Justin Smoak aside and each year give him conflicting advice about this and that, not to mention whatever he did in Texas. Smoak has been a bit of a bust--yes--but he's also been in a really tumultuous situation on a team that hasn't been able to decide what it wants to do, or even how to use him.

Smoak also probably knows his time is coming up soon, and that he can't stay in AAA forever. There is pretty big pressure there, and the Mariners seem to basically be saying "hey, figure out how to hit a bunch of dingers from both sides of the plate, and then come stand on first base and catch a baseball now and then and you'll be fine." But Griffey's comments seem to be interesting--there's no reason a starting first baseman who has been in professional baseball since 2008 should still be struggling like this, even if he's a "switch-hitter with double problems." Suggesting this is all just a mental thing betrays the facts quite a bit, and while I'm positive his situation--combined with the pressure of living up to the whole Chris Davis 2 thing--isn't making his life any easier, it also doesn't mean he should just keep on keepin on at first base next year.

So what were the Mariners going to do with him before signing Cano? What if, as Griffey insinuates, part of the problem is switch hitting? Logan had a really great post here last month about platooning Smoak that is worth a read, and it's pretty relevant here. Basically, we all know Smoak is better as a lefty--and the question seems to be if .5 of a first baseman is worth whatever Smoak is going to get in arbitration, or worth an entire warm body on the roster (what the M's decide to do with that empty DH spot is pretty important here, of course, but we don't know that yet). But as Logan points out, the Mariners have access to HitF/X, and know a lot more about Smoak's tendencies, personality, abilities, and story than any of us do, even though the numbers seem to be pretty telling. Here's Logan:

Presumably they've done a HitF/X analysis of Justin Smoak. If that analysis tells them that both the BABIP uptick and the ISO spike are legitimate - not just one, but both - then there's a case to be made that Smoak is a good enough platoon candidate. So if the Mariners do decide to go into 2014 with Smoak starting at first base, I won't be terribly upset, because it probably means that data I don't have says "this guy is for real".

So the Mariners believe(d) in Smoak. They knew something we didn't (or still know something we don't), and there was at least cause to think that the promise of power that bat showed was going to be a cornerstone to build this franchise around. This is where it gets weird though. The whole Justin Smoak thing came up when talking about lineup protection for Cano. Now, without starting that whole debate, it's going to take something huge for pitchers to be so afraid of Justin Smoak that they throw Robinson Cano hittable fastballs. But Griffey's point is that Smoak doesn't have to hit dingers all the time, he just has to hit. Behind Cano. Because he's a good hitter. Not just a platoon guy. Not just a guy that shows flashes of power and hits 20 HR while striking out 22% of the time. A good all around hitter.

Griffey knows more about hitting than just about everyone who has ever lived, and he likes Justin Smoak. Howard Lincoln has called him the future first baseman of this franchise. Unless the Mariners dramatically upgrade in the offseason, it seems unlikely they are ready to give up on him before a few more years. But if this is even in the conversation, it's a dramatic change to what Smoak was going to do with this team. Suddenly it's not Hey, Justin Smoak, You Can Still Do It! It's Hey, Justin Smoak, Hit After Robinson Cano Every Night To Make Sure He Gets Good Pitches! And No Pressure!

Now, granted, this is just Griffey speaking off the cuff. Who knows what the hell the Mariners are going to do with both Smoak and Cano. The New York Post today had an article from George A. King III that essentially claims Robinson Cano wanted out of New York partially because Girardi wouldn't let him hit anywhere but second because he wanted to pad his stats:

"Robbie didn’t like batting second, he wanted to bat in the middle of the order,’’ one person said. "The Yankees wanted him second because that was best for the team. He wanted to hit in the middle of the order to drive in runs [to increase his value].’’

Well, whatever. Who knows. Honestly, who gives a shit. When you're Robinson Cano, you deserve to get some stats on your way to Cooperstown. But you do know one thing is certain: if even a modicum of this debate is true, it's not happening in Seattle. Cano is probably getting whatever he wants here. Actually, the conversation probably did happen, except instead of occurring between a baseball player and his manager, it was between a rapper-turned-agent and a bald guy who couldn't say anything in response because he was too busy throwing money across the table.

We don't know if Smoak is going to hit after Cano. We don't know if Cano is going to be "protected" in the lineup. But all of this gives me at least the tiniest inkling that Cano knows what he wants, and the rest of this roster is absolutely going to be built around his spot in the lineup. Smoak? Suddenly, the unsolvable Justin Smoak question seems to have an answer. I don't know what it is because Cano hasn't said it yet.





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