Lloyd McClendon’s first lineup as manager of the Seattle Mariners provided a surprise. With Robinson Cano firmly entrenched as the No. 3 hitter, either Kyle Seager or the platoon of Corey Hart and Logan Morrison was expected bat cleanup behind Cano.
Instead, McClendon elected to put Justin Smoak in the fourth spot, a move that has paid off so far.
Smoak was once a highly ranked prospect, coming to Seattle as the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade with the Texas Rangers in 2010. Instead of blossoming into a premier power hitter, Smoak has posted a career triple-slash of .228/.315/.390.
This season will be critical, not only for Smoak’s future in the major leagues, but the Mariners as a whole—as it appears he will be regularly protecting Cano.
In the Mariners’ first two games, Smoak shined with six RBI, two doubles and a home run. It’s an incredibly small sample size, but the way Smoak has approached his at-bats so far should provide Mariners fans with plenty of optimism.
Smoak broke open the Mariners’ Opening Day win over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim by crushing 3-run homer off of Kevin Jepsen. According to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, the ball travelled 392 feet and would have left 29 major league ballparks. Many will remember Smoak’s comments to Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times in June 2012, saying “that’s all I’ve got” in reference to a warning track out. That was not the case on Monday.
The next night, Smoak again had the key hit in a Mariners victory, lacing a base-clearing double in the third inning off of C.J. Wilson.
Not only did Smoak deliver following an intentional walk to Cano, he did so batting right-handed.
Smoak was a decent hitter over the last half of 2013 from the left side, but has a career .661 OPS batting from the right side. If he can contribute anything from the right side, Smoak’s production could skyrocket.
One more thing to keep an eye on is Smoak’s patience. Last year he brought a new approach to the plate and walked 64 times, 15 more than in 2012. Smoak worked a walk off of Jered Weaver on Monday, including laying off of a 3-2 curveball that he may have flailed at in the past.
Teams around the league will undoubtedly be cautious with Cano all year long, making Smoak possibly the most important hitter in the Mariners’ lineup. Smoak has already driven in Cano twice, including once after an intentional walk. If that can continue, the Mariners may be closer to contention than many thought entering the season.