We are still a month out from opening day, but twenty six year-old Justin Smoak has already been named the starting first baseman for the Mariners by Manager Eric Wedge. This decision was made despite Smoak’s constant struggles over the last three years. It is also a bit strange considering the other players that are competing with him for spots in the lineup. Let’s take a look at what this decision by Wedge really means.
In 2012, Smoak’s numbers were a great disappointment. His WAR, slugging percentage, and wRC+ were each the third worst among major league first basemen, and his OBP was worst among first basemen. Over the offseason, the team added players such as Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, and Raul Ibanez who seemed to make Smoak a less appealing option. Yet why would Wedge give him the starting job before spring training was even in full swing?
I think that Wedge is giving Smoak one last chance to be a productive major leaguer. There is no doubt that he has talent. He was a first round pick and a top 25 prospect in baseball two years in a row. Regardless of talent, the Mariner organization can’t continue to sit around and wait for Smoak to possibly figure out how to hit MLB pitching. It’s time for the team to move forward at the first base position, and Justin’s output at the beginning of the year will decide whether they move forward with him in the lineup or without him.
Wedge is putting Smoak over the fire. He’s pushing him out of the boat to see if he will sink or swim. No more waiting games for the prospect we traded Cliff Lee for. No. Either he produces or he doesn’t have a job anymore.
I think this is a good thing for Seattle for a couple reasons. First, it will force Smoak to succeed. Many different approaches have been taken to the first baseman’s development, but none have seemed to work. Lots of time has been devoted to his progression, but the time is up, and the ball is in Smoak’s court now. Nobody is going to argue that Seattle didn’t give him a fair chance.
If Justin doesn’t hit, it will open up a spot for a first baseman, designated hitter or outfielder. Perhaps this could be Liddi’s chance to start on an everyday basis. Maybe now is the time to give Peguero another extended look in the majors. If Zunino tears up the Pacific Coast League for the first few months, this could be his opportunity to catch while Montero takes DH duties. Whether Smoak comes through or not, there will probably be a good outcome for Seattle.
So far this spring, Justin Smoak has hit very well. He is 7 for 12 at the plate and also has two doubles and two homeruns. In addition, some of his hits have come off of some good pitchers. Today he doubled off Matt Cain, and he has already homered off John Axford.
While spring training performance is not a trustworthy indicator of future success, the fact that Smoak is thriving in Arizona is encouraging. Regardless of whether or not his production rolls over to the regular season, it is time for him to either sink or swim.