Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak has had a disappointing season. His goal during the offseason will be to get stronger, then prove he can be the power hitter the Mariners hoped for when they acquired him in the Cliff Lee trade.
Justin Smoak is at an all-too-familiar juncture in his brief major-league career: hoping to finish strong, then figure out a way during the winter to finally emerge as a consistently productive hitter.
The difference is that at age 25, with more than 1,000 big-league at-bats, Smoak is running out of time to prove himself. This has been a highly disappointing season for the first baseman, a reality he doesn’t try to run away from.
“This year has just not been a good year at all,” Smoak said. “I thought last year was a bad year, and I hit .230. … If I had done what I’m capable of doing, we probably would have won a lot more ballgames this year.”
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Smoak is hitting .202, and it’s taken a recent hot streak — a .526 average (10 for 19) with two home runs over a five-game stretch — to get over the Mendoza Line. That comes after being sent back down to the minors in late July, quite a comedown for a player who was envisioned as a franchise cornerstone when he was acquired from Texas in the Cliff Lee trade in July 2010.
Smoak is encouraged that a new hitting technique — keeping his hands on the bat during left-handed swings rather than using a one-handed follow-through favored by many power hitters — has led to better at-bats. He has committed himself to getting stronger during the offseason, and believes he still can be a key part of the Mariners’ future.
“I have to put the work in this offseason, get where I want to be, find something that works,” he said. “Right now, I’m at a point where I feel like things are going to turn around.”
The question is whether the Mariners can afford to commit to that hope for 2013. Manager Eric Wedge says that Smoak’s recent hot streak is “real,” but the Mariners have been teased by past Smoak surges. He had a .920 OPS in April 2011, and hit .301 in September of that season. Earlier this year, Smoak was named the American League Player of the Week after hitting .348 with three homers, a double, six walks, eight runs batted in and seven runs scored in six games during late May and early June.
But Smoak has been unable to sustain such spurts, and has a .218 career average with peripherals that don’t bode well. General manager Jack Zduriencik said Thursday that Smoak has not played himself out of their plans (“not at all”), but also that he needs to step up.
“What sort of role is up to him,” Zduriencik said. “Any player you give an opportunity to, they have to go out and perform. … How he finishes the year, and how he prepares himself going into next year, will determine a whole lot how he stands.”
Zduriencik said he has been encouraged by some of Smoak’s recent at-bats, with a proviso. “Again, you have to sustain it over a period of time,” he said. “This game comes at you. It doesn’t let you relax. You have to be ahead of the curve. We’ll see how all this transpires.”
Bolstering the Mariners’ offense will be the offseason priority of Zduriencik after another season in which they rank at or near the bottom of MLB in most categories. Depending on who they acquire, it could impact Smoak’s future.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that as we go into the winter, we’d like to come up with a bat,” Zduriencik said.
“Where that plays, it depends. I don’t know how we’ll match up with another club. But our biggest priority is to bring in someone who will add to what we’ve done here. Where that fits in is yet to be determined.”
Smoak, meanwhile, knows his own priority is to figure out where he’s gone off track, and how to correct it. The key is to shorten a swing that tends to get too long, and Smoak believes the two-handed swing is an important step in that direction.
“It’s something I used to do when I was younger, and I just tried to go back to it,” he said. “I feel like it’s shortened me up a good bit. I have to keep working at it. It’s a place I’ve been before. When I struggled as a kid, my dad always said, ‘Keep both hands on your bat.’ He was as old school as could be.”
Smoak has found that swinging two-handed forces him to be more compact. He feels the strengthening program he plans for this winter will add to that.
“I just have to get stronger,” he said. “My legs, my core, upper body, everything. I mean, I’m 25 years old. I feel strong. But I have a big frame. I can be a lot stronger than I am. That’s the No. 1 goal.
“You stay short and compact, and you’re a strong guy, you’re going to hit a lot of doubles and a lot of home runs,” he said. “I’ve hit some homers, but I just haven’t been consistent at all. It’s been up and down, up and down, up and down. A lot of downs. I have to find something that works, and go from there.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @StoneLarry