Baseball 2012: Seattle Mariners' Justin Smoak, Breakout Year or Bust?

Michael FitzpatrickCorrespondent IApril 6, 2012

Baseball 2012: Seattle Mariners' Justin Smoak, Breakout Year or Bust?

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    Justin Smoak is considered by many to be one of the top prospects in baseball. He was so well thought of that the Seattle Mariners parted with a Cy Young award winner in Cliff Lee to get him. But Smoak, who many have said could be the next Mark Teixeira, has hit more like one-time Mariner Bruce Bochte.

    Let's face it, the Seattle Mariners of 2011 were not going to make anyone forget the 1927 New York Yankees. They finished last in the American League in hitting (.233) and last in runs scored (534).

    With that in mind, manager Eric Wedge decided to plop Justin Smoak into the No. 4 hole in the lineup. Not exactly the ideal spot for a youngster just learning his way in the big leagues, but it's never too early for a player to start developing. It may have been a case of too much too soon for Smoak, who hit .234 with 15 homers and 55 RBI. 

    Wedge plans on keeping Smoak in the No. 4 spot again this year.

    "He's going to be right in the middle of everything,"  Wedge said during spring training.

    Smoak hit a robust .378 in spring training, but with no home runs. He did homer during the Mariners' opening series in Japan against the A's. He should also benefit by having the newly acquired Jesus Montero in the lineup, who should provide some protection for Smoak.

For Comparison's Sake

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    When Justin Smoak came out of University of South Carolina and was taken with the 11th overall pick in 2008, scouts compared him with Mark Teixeira. Both are about the same size and both are switch-hitting first basemen. Smoak is 6'4'', 225 pounds, while Teixeira is about an inch shorter and around 10 pounds lighter. 

    Statistically, the two have been far from comparable. In Teixeira's first three years in the majors, he hit a combined 107 home runs and drove drove in 340 runs. In his third full year, Teixeira hit 44 homers, drove in 144 runs and hit a robust .301.

    Smoak's numbers don't compare. In his first complete season (2011), he hit .234 with 15 homers and 55 RBIs. In three seasons, which covers 775 plate appearances, he has a career average of .227 with 28 homers and 103 RBIs.

Staying Healthy

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    Smoak's first full year in the majors was not a picnic. His father passed away during the season, he played through injuries to both thumbs and he suffered a broken nose when a ground ball took a bad hop on him.Smoak started the season off strong, hitting .300 during the season's early weeks, but then hurt both his thumbs during a brief stretch in June, he told Larry Stone.

    "Yeah, it was bad," he said. "I get jammed and my right thumb was messed up. Then I take a bad hop off the left thumb, and it was that big around (making a wide circle gesture) and I couldn't move it. It's hard to hit when you don't have your hands."

    Smoak was overmatched at the plate, and the Mariners didn't make the injury known, fearing opponents would pound the zone with inside fastballs to take advantage of Smoak's sore hands.

    But there are no secrets in the majors. Smoak hit a dismal .113 over a stretch from June through July.

Wedged into the No. 4 Hole

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    Eric Wedge decided to hit Smoak in the No. 4 hole early in 2011. The move may have hurt the development of Smoak, who appeared overmatched to bat in such a crucial spot in the lineup. But, Wedge has not lost confidence in his first baseman and will return him to the premier power spot in the order in 2012.

    Smoak admitted this spring he pressed at the plate, which manifested itself in him trying to hit too many home runs.

    "Last year I got into trouble with trying to hit home runs," he said. "I hit 12 homers the first two, three months and I started trying to hit homers. The first two, three months I didn't try to hit homers and I hit them anyway. When you try to do too much you start striking out, you start swinging at bad pitches. This year it's just try to stay with the same approach all year," Smoak told the Seattle Times.

What Might Have Been

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    Baseball is business. It's big business.

    That's why Justin Smoak doesn't appear to be too upset that the Mariners were reportedly in the market this winter for slugging first baseman Prince Fielder. Fielder ultimately signed with Detroit for $214 million, but Smoak understands that the Mariners might not wait long for him to produce like many project him to.

    "I learned pretty quick, you can't go on something until something actually happens," Smoak said. "It was one of those things, if we were to get him, I didn't think they'd want to get rid of me. You don't want to get a guy to lose a guy when you're trying to build an offense. It's over now, he is where he is and we are where we are."

A Brand New Year

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    Justin Smoak, to his credit, didn't mail in the last month of the 2011 season. He could have been focused on tee times after his struggles, but instead, he fought through September and finished strong, hitting .301 for the month with three home runs and 11 RBI.

    That finish has some experts targeting Smoak for a breakout campaign in 2012. It won't hurt that he'll now have more plate protection, with Ichiro moving into the No. 3 hole in the lineup and the Mariners adding slugging DH Jesus Montero. And having red hot prospect Dustin Ackley hitting in second lineup should provide more RBI opportunities for Smoak.

    For that reason, the USA Today is saying Smoak may be ready to blossom into the power hitter so many predicted he'd be when he was drafted.

    It will be interesting to see if this is the year the highly-touted Smoak catches fires or his career, at least in Seattle, goes up in smoke.

Breakout Time

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    To Smoak's credit, he finished the 2012 season strong. After struggling through the first five months of the season, he could have packed it in and started planning tee times. Instead, he continued to grind and hit .301 with three homers and 11 RBI in September.

    That performance raised his stock with some experts who are looking for big things from Smoak in 2012.