Five weeks into the season, the Mariners first baseman is batting .173, but he insists he is healthy and confident he will break out soon.
What’s wrong with Justin Smoak?
It’s the most asked question of the first five weeks of the Mariners’ season.
Is the hamstring injury that bothered him late last season still lingering, still limiting his movement and his power? Does it just naturally take longer for a switch hitter, like Smoak, to learn to hit big-league pitching from two different perspectives?
Is his swing too long and too slow?
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Or is he merely a talented 25-year old kid still adjusting to life in the big leagues? Is he one hot streak away from turning potential into pop?
Smoak was the jewel in the most important trade in general manager Jack Zduriencik’s four years with the Mariners. He was the multi-tooled, everyday first baseman the Mariners got from Texas at the 2010 trade deadline for pitcher Cliff Lee.
Will Zduriencik be defined by the Lee trade? Does his reputation and his future rest on Smoak’s success? Is that a lot of heat to put on a young player?
“I hope he never thinks about the trade, honestly,” Zduriencik said during batting practice Wednesday. “I hope he thinks we brought him here because we like him. Because he was part of a big trade is irrelevant. The trade is behind him. He’s a guy who’s trying to cut it at the big-league level. He’s a kid that’s got ability. It should never be part of his psyche that ‘I’ve got to do something because this team went out and got me.’
“If there was any message that I would ever have for Justin, it would be, ‘Be who you are. Don’t be anything more than just what you are, because we think that’s good enough.’ “
Five weeks into this long season, Smoak is fighting himself. He’s hitting .173 with three home runs and 10 runs batted in. His OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) is a tepid .447 and he’s struck out 28 times in 29 games. Recently manager Eric Wedge moved Smoak down from cleanup to the No. 7 hole.
I think it would be beneficial to send Smoak to Tacoma to just briefly ease the pressure on him and help him shorten his swing, away from the big-league glare.
The Mariners, however, don’t agree.
“He’s gone down to Triple A, whether it was with Texas or with us, and he’s tore up Triple A. He’s not going to accomplish anything there,” Zduriencik said. “He’s part of this program right now. He’s part of our big-league club. He needs to be here. We’ve seen really good things from him from both sides of the plate.”
This franchise will rise or stagnate with its youth movement. The players at the center of the Mariners’ growth — Mike Carp, Jesus Montero, Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley, Alex Liddi, Michael Saunders and Smoak — are 25 or younger.
There is pressure on all of them, but there’s even more on Smoak. He was part of The Trade.
“It is probably a little bit harder on Smoak because he’s struggling a little bit,” Wedge said. “But you know what? It’s like anything else when you’re in a pressure situation, or you’re feeling it a little bit, that’s when you really have to back off the gas and not be in such a hurry to get hits and have success.”
More than three hours before Wednesday’s game with Detroit, Smoak sat at his locker in the nearly empty Mariners clubhouse watching tape of the Tigers’ young starter, Drew Smyly.
“I just feel like if I put together good at-bats, good things will happen. Right now, it’s a matter of shortening my swing and not trying to do too much,” Smoak said. “Everybody talks about being ready for the fastball and I feel like I am.
“But my swing’s a little long and that’s why I’m not getting to it. I’m gearing up for the fastball, gearing up to try to hit it out of the ballpark, instead of just gearing up and trying to square it up somehow. I gotta keep at it. I know what I’m capable of doing. I have all the confidence in the world in myself. It’s just one of those things where you have to keep grinding it out.”
Smoak was the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft. Quickly and steadily, from Clinton to Oklahoma City, he progressed through the Texas organization, and his chance came in Seattle after the Lee trade.
He had stretches early last season when he looked as if he was ready to realize the faith Zduriencik had in him. Smoak had an 11-game hitting streak in April. He hit 12 home runs in his first 59 games.
But his power numbers shrunk in the second half of the season. He spent time on the disabled list with a broken nose. He went 48 games from August into September without a home run. His hamstring haunted him.
“My confidence’s level with him is as high as it’s ever been,” Wedge said. “I believe in him. It’s really easy to get off a guy like this. But last year, at this time, who was our best hitter? Justin Smoak.”
There is speculation Smoak’s hamstring still is bothering him. He laughs at himself when asked about it.
“Everybody thinks my hamstring’s hurt,” Smoak said. “I haven’t been on base enough for my hamstring to hurt. I mean, there’s nothing there. Nothing’s wrong.”
Something’s wrong, and in the crucible of a long, big-league season, Smoak is trying to get it fixed.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com
|By the numbers|
|Justin Smoak has been struggling at the plate this season.|
|2012, on May 11||29||.173||3||10|
|2011, on May 11||30||.291||5||22|