Why keep writing about Justin Smoak, when we all know he's underachieved, and when we all know he shouldn't figure into the middle of the Mariners' plans going forward? Because while Smoak has disappointed, he hasn't disappointed in the way that, I don't know, Brandon League disappointed. Smoak came into this season looking to build off some early and late success last season. He is 25 years old. He presently has a 63 OPS+, which is the same as Miguel Olivo's OPS+. As a Mariner, Jack Wilson had a 64 OPS+, and Jeff Cirillo had a 64 OPS+. Rob Johnson had a 61 OPS+. This is Justin Smoak's company now, and this is nothing short of amazing. It's hard not to write about how amazing Justin Smoak is in the other way that a player can be amazing.
I've remarked before about how I wish I could talk to some of the scouts who rated Smoak so highly in the past. Obviously, it wasn't one or two guys who thought Smoak would become a thing -- it was sort of the consensus opinion. Smoak was a big-time prospect, and I don't know if I've ever before actually copied and pasted bits of initial scouting reports. Here's an MLB.com entry on Smoak from draft time. Highlights:
He's got plus power now and in the future, from both sides of the plate. He could be a 35-40 homer guy at the big-league level.
That's because he's got a smooth and easy swing that generates plenty of power from both sides of the plate. This isn't college power; it will translate just fine to the pro game.
From the little embedded video in the corner:
Smoak is one of those hitters that makes you want to stop what you're doing just to watch him take his swings.
Okay, great. Now fast-forward to now, when Justin Smoak is in the major leagues and terrible. Sometimes we refer to players as being terrible when they've actually been mediocre, or unclutch, or whatever. Sometimes it's an exaggeration. Here, it's not an exaggeration, as Justin Smoak has been terrible, relative to his peers. What of that polished, smooth and easy swing? Eric Wedge:
"The first part of that is for him to have a firm understanding of what he needs to do to keep his swing together. His upper half and lower half don't work together like they should. When they are on line together, then you see the bat speed, you see the power, you see the recognition of pitches much better."
Wedge said the type of adjustments Smoak needs to make are tough to implement during the season because of the desire to compete and succeed at the same time.
Wedge acknowledges that Smoak's swing is messed up. Presumably, if Smoak's swing had always been messed up, the scouts would've seen it in college or in the minors. No, Smoak's swing(s) must have come apart over time. I don't know why, and though I could offer a few guesses, they'd be nothing but guesses. I know Brandon McCarthy likes to say it's pretty much always mental and maybe in this case it's mental issues holding Smoak back. It could be almost anything. The only thing we know for sure is that Smoak is being held back by something or somethings.
It's always hard to make mechanical adjustments during the season, for pitchers and for hitters. It's always hard to make mechanical adjustments, period, but during the season, it's easy to fall back onto old habits when you get into a meaningful game because that's what comes automatically and the game proceeds at a pace that isn't up to each individual player. Sometimes players can make in-season adjustments stick -- that seems to be something that happened with Felix -- but you can't count on it. Adjustments come from repetition and it's tough to keep repeating when you're playing in games.
So why is Smoak playing in games, if the necessary adjustments are admittedly tough to implement? I don't have an answer to that, but I guess it would be odd if the Mariners just benched Smoak outright. Maybe they've seen small signs of progress, or maybe they're still developing a thorough Smoak swing evaluation. One would hope that we wouldn't see a whole lot of Smoak the rest of the way, since he's not about to turn the corner, and there are other options.
And speaking of options, that's a thing. We know that Smoak has been more disappointing than fresh bread that gets mold in it before you thought it would get mold in it, and we know that the 2013 Mariners have to plan on having something better at first base out of the gate. We know that Smoak's value is at an all-time low, such that I don't think any Mariners fans are counting on him to be a part of the future anymore. There's not going to be any offseason flipping of Smoak for good value. But unless I'm just completely wrong, Smoak's got another option year left. He was optioned in 2010 and he was optioned in 2012, but his only time in the minors in 2011 was during a brief rehab assignment. These things are always partially guesswork but it seems to me that Smoak could spend a lot of next year with Tacoma.
So the Mariners don't have to just drop him if they don't want to. They can give Smoak another extended opportunity to try to get things right, and it should become evident pretty quickly whether things are different or whether things are the same. Smoak's historical comparables are extremely discouraging, but there might still be a spark somewhere in there and the Mariners can give him more time. More time couldn't hurt, since more time wouldn't have to be more time spent in a Seattle Mariners uniform.
The Mariners think they have an idea of what's wrong with Justin Smoak. They might have the right idea. Smoak might be able to make the necessary adjustments. The resulting player might be a pretty good player. There are a lot of maybes and mights, and all that's certain is that Smoak now is bad. There's no sense in counting on Smoak for the short- and long-term future, but if you didn't like the idea of completely giving up on him, the Mariners won't have to completely give up on him, not yet. It's just that the ball's in his court, and he'll have to earn any opportunities he might henceforth be given. I hope. I mean, geez, I really hope so.