At the beginning of the season, it was apparent that 2014 would be a make-or-break year for Seattle Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak.
A top prospect as the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee deal in 2010, Smoak was supposed to be a force in the heart of the Mariners lineup by now. Instead, he’s struggled through four seasons in the big leagues and has only gotten worse in 2014.
Smoak got off to a good start to begin the year but has slumped over the past two months and owns some of the worst offensive statistics in the league among regular first basemen. Nearing 2200 plate appearances, Smoak’s career line stands at .208/.282/.361 with -0.2 WAR.
Sometimes patience can pay off, as the Mariners have seen with Michael Saunders this year. But it’s pretty clear that it’s time for Jack Zduriencik to admit he was wrong with the Lee trade and move on from Smoak.
The question for the Mariners now is if there is anyone on the current roster who will be any better than Smoak as a starting first baseman. With Smoak being placed on the 15-day disabled list Tuesday with a quad injury, the Mariners will now get a period to evaluate other potential first basemen. Smoak is on a one-year deal with a club option for next season, so if someone sticks at first over the next few weeks, he could be done in Seattle.
Smoak has always done just enough to hint that he may yet break out at some point. His numbers have been hurt by Safeco Field, as he seems to have a lot of warning track power, but Smoak would still occasionally go on month-long tears.
But he has never been able to sustain a level of even moderate production for an extended period of time. Smoak's best stretch came between August 2012 and late last year, when he managed to put up a solid .279/.372/.834 line over 131 games.
Smoak continued to hit well over the first 10 days of this season, and many Seattle fans and media members believed he was finally going to turn it around in 2014. It wasn’t just his lofty numbers in a small sample size, Smoak was taking walks and hitting line drives from both sides of the plate.
He crushed a three-run home run on Opening Day, showing Smoak has much more to give than just warning track power.
Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN highlighted one of many reasons to be optimistic about Smoak’s 2014 campaign:
Justin Smoak had 2 3 rbi games last year. He has 2 already.— Shannon Drayer (@shannondrayer) April 2, 2014
Since then, Smoak has slumped miserably and has not even shown many of the brief flashes of talent we’ve seen in seasons past. Things are trending downward, as Smoak’s OPS this year stands at a career-low .643. Smoak is striking out more and walking less than at any other point in his career.
Many other slumping Mariners have been given days off at various points, but Smoak started every game until being sidelined June 4 with a quad strain. Lloyd McClendon committed to Smoak in the offseason and has certainly stood by his words.
"I said this winter that Smoak is my first baseman. Will other guys play first? Yeah. But Smoak is my first baseman," McClendon told MLB.com's John Schlegel.
We’ll have to see if that remains true after Smoak returns from injury and some other players get a chance at first, as he was placed on the disabled list Tuesday:
Justin Smoak to 15-day DL, Logan Morrison back from rehab with Tacoma and starting at 1B today.— Greg Johns (@GregJohnsMLB) June 11, 2014
If someone is going to replace Smoak as an everyday first baseman, they will have to provide enough offensive production to replace what Smoak brings defensively. Smoak’s defensive metrics don’t grade out well due to his very limited range, but he has great hands and has made picks that few other first basemen would be able to on a routine basis.
The Mariners saw how important Smoak’s defense can be with this game-saving catch on April 25 to beat the Texas Rangers.
Still, Smoak is so poor offensively that the Mariners should be able to field a better replacement, but that’s no guarantee with the current roster construction. In the time in between when Smoak was initially injured and when he went on the disabled list, the Mariners started Willie Bloomquist at first, which isn’t an upgrade in any way.
Now, Logan Morrison is going to get a chance as an everyday first baseman. Like Smoak, Morrison has a lot of untapped potential but has at least had some success at the major league level.
Morrison hit .247/.330/.468 with 23 home runs in 123 games in 2011 with the then Florida Marlins, good for a wRC+ of 116, per Fangraphs. The key for Morrison is staying healthy, as he’s been injury-prone throughout his career and has already missed two months in 2014 with a hamstring injury.
After looking lost at the plate to begin the year, Morrison hit well during a long rehab assignment at Triple-A Tacoma. Morrison told Greg Johns at MLB.com that the extended rehab helped him get in a rhythm that was missing earlier in the year.
It's been huge. At the beginning of the year, I didn't even have a feel for what was going on. Everything was to the second baseman. Now when I hit the ball to the second baseman, at least I know what I did. Now I have to correct that and maybe not hit so many there.
He backed that statement up with his first home run in a Mariners uniform in his second game back from the injury.
Morrison’s defense is not good, so he has to hit well to take over the starting role, but the potential is certainly there. Jesus Montero might also get a couple of looks at first against left-handed pitching, but it would be a shock if he provided much at the plate at this point, and you can probably imagine what his defense looks like.
The next Mariners first baseman to come up from the minors will be Ji-Man Choi. An intriguing prospect, Choi has put up big walk numbers with decent power at all levels of the minor leagues so far, something the Mariners have been looking for out of a first baseman for a long time.
Choi is just coming off of a 50-game suspension and is currently in Double-A getting his timing back, so it will be a while before he can be called up. He’s at least going to get a look in September and will have a chance to establish himself as a candidate for 2015.
If no one sticks at first, Smoak may round out the season as a starter, but it’s time for the Mariners to move on to other options.