It seems like this is the last straw for Justin Smoak. He is entering his 4th big league season with almost nothing to show for it. Over his 355 game career, Smoak is hitting a lowly .223/.306/.377, with 47 home runs. That clearly isn’t going to cut it at the major league level.
But up until this point, he really didn’t have a ton of competition. The job was pretty much his, and only his, as he attempted to figure out whatever was holding him back. However, he is no longer alone at 1st base. The M’s brought in Kendrys Morales, as well as Michael Morse this offseason, both of whom could play 1st base for now and beyond if Smoak doesn’t cut it.
That brings me to the point of this post: What does success mean for Justin Smoak? What does he have to do to show he isn’t a bust, and deserves a spot on the Mariners for years to come? And more importantly, how well does he have to play for the front office to feel comfortable moving forward with him, and without Morales?
Aug 14, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak (17) hits a RBI sacrifice fly ball against the Tampa Bay Rays during the 9th inning at Safeco Field. Seattle defeated Tampa Ba 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
I’ll start of with what I would qualify as “success” for Justin. This is obviously all up for interpretation, and hard to know for sure. I think I will probably have a higher expectation for him than the organization will. The reason being they let him get this far, and have been very patient with his massive under-performance. They also seem to have a lot of confidence in him still. I on the other hand, will have to be impressed to want to roll with him over bringing back Morales.
This is just a rough line, but a successful season for Smoak to me is somewhere around .260/.335/.440 or better. That would be a .37/.29/.63 improvement over his career numbers, and would be a welcomed sight out of the former top prospect. However, they may not be enough to lock-up the 1st base job for the future.
Which brings me to the next, and more complicated factor: What about Morales? If he returns to 2009 form (.306/.355/.569) or close to it, it may not matter what Smoak does. If they can afford to bring him back, they have to do it. Unfortunately, or fortunately for Smoak, that kind of season isn’t very likely for Morales.
So assuming Morales has a good, but not great year, what would Smoak have to do? I’ll use the average of Bill James‘ and the FANS projections from Fangraphs to get our baseline for Morales. James projects a .284/.332/.489 line, while the Fans project a very similar .284/.337/.472 line. (Roughly) averaging those out, we get a .284/.335/.480 line.
If Morales puts up those numbers, Smoak will probably have to surpass the numbers I stated above, but not by too much. If he can get to a .780 OPS (35 points lower than Morales) he is likely safe for the future. Because while Morales has a sizable edge offensively, Smoak is the better defender, 3 years younger, and is already under contract for much cheaper than Morales would be. Plus, we can assume he will continue to improve on that, while Morales is close to entering his decline period
Again, this is all just my opinion, and have no idea how Wedge or Jack would handle this situation. They seem to be very confident with Smoak, but have hinted at this being the last straw for Smoak. I think its safe to say though, that if Smoak can be at least a slightly above average hitter, he will be pretty safe at first base for the future.
So in short, Smoak doesn’t have to be better than Morales to keep the job going forward. He just has to make sure he hits well enough that his age, defense, and contract are able to offset the advantage Morales has in terms of offensive production. But hey, if Smoak can match Morales’s .815 OPS, then that’s fine too.