Justin Smoak: Should the Seattle Mariners Offer Him a Full Contract?
The Mariners haven't had someone hit more than 40 homers in a season since Alex Rodriguez did it in 2000. That pretty much sums up the struggles they've had over the past decade and makes it pretty easy to diagnose their biggest problem: hitting for power.
Contact hitting hasn't been as much of a problem, illustrated by their perennial top-10 performance in team batting average (except for this year—their .227 average is good for last in the majors). Pitching and fielding have also been pretty solid as of late.
Since these trends have been apparent for a while now, it's frustrating that the management hasn't tried harder to find a solution to the home run dilemma. There have been attempts like Russell Branyan, Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre, but none of them produced like they were expected to.
So when Justin Smoak came to Seattle in the Cliff Lee deal last year, many fans were speculative. He didn't have an awesome 30 games at the end of the 2010 season, but the forgiving fans in Seattle were willing to give him another shot.
This season, Smoak has looked a lot better, so should the Mariners offer him a contract? Or continue to go to arbitration for several more years? Or trade him for prospects in accordance with their rebuilding strategy?
Here's a look at three reasons why the M's should make sure they hang on to him for the years ahead.
He Can Hit
Smoak is young, and he hits pretty well. That says more than you think.
It isn't easy for a young batter to come up to the majors and immediately hit like he did in college. The pitching is a level beyond that of college, and there are tons of new deliveries to become acquainted with.
It's much easier for a young pitcher to come up to the majors and succeed because no one has seen his stuff. Each pitcher has an individual motion and unique pitches that can often stun batters the first time around (see Michael Pineda).
It usually takes three or four at-bats for a batter to adjust to the pitcher's nuances, and in that time, numbers can look scary. Since Smoak hasn't had any alarming numbers thus far, we can assume that he'll warm up more than he already has as the season progresses.
It's important for Seattle to lock Smoak down now since he definitely has a bright future ahead of him.
He's Seattle's Singular Power Asset
While it doesn't say a lot on a major-league scale, the fact that Smoak leads the Mariners in doubles, home runs, slugging percentage and runs batted in is very important to the Seattle organization.
With Jack Cust getting the majority of his RBI off bases-loaded walks, Smoak is really the only guy in the order who can be depended upon when there are runners on.
Hopefully, with Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, Adam Moore and possibly Anthony Rendon coming up relatively soon, some of the weight will be lifted from Smoak, but for now, he has to "put the team on his back."
If the Mariners sent him away in a trade or let him go at the end of this year, they would be in a bad way with regard to scoring runs, which is already a tremendous problem. Last year, they scored the fewest runs (by 74) of any major-league team, and without Smoak they could easily return to that mark.
While the Mariners' excellent pitching has kept the number of runs allowed very low, it's still necessary to average more than 3.2 runs per game if you want to contend.
He Plays 1B
First base is often written off as a position for sluggers who don't have anywhere else to play. While that is semi-applicable to Justin Smoak, he's the only true first baseman Seattle has.
There are other utility players like Adam Kennedy and Chris Gimenez who can cover at first, but Smoak is actually a decent player defensively. He has just one error this year and a career .995 fielding percentage.
Also, conveniently, none of the Mariners' upcoming prospects/draft picks are first basemen, so there shouldn't be any conflict.
I have talked about the possibility of trading for Prince Fielder, who also plays first base, but, contrary to what his name says, he is one of those guys who fields just so he can hit. If he came to the Mariners, he could replace Jack Cust as DH, an amenity the NL doesn't get to enjoy.
Since 1B seems to be an unusually scarce position for the Mariners, it would be smart to keep Smoak in Seattle for a few more years as the rebuilding phase completes.