Is Mariners' Controversial Cliff Lee for Justin Smoak Trade Officially a Bust?

Mike Rosenbaum@GoldenSombreroMLB Prospects Lead WriterJuly 25, 2012

SEATTLE, WA - MAY 25:  Justin Smoak #17 of the Seattle Mariners is congratulated by teammates after hitting a two-run homer in the fifth inning against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Safeco Field on May 25, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Trading Ichiro Suzuki wasn’t the only roster move made by the Seattle Mariners on Monday night.

Following the team’s 4-1 loss to the New York Yankees, the Mariners demoted first baseman Justin Smoak to Triple-A Tacoma, recalling Mike Carp in his place. With only one hit and 12 strikeouts in his last 20 at-bats, Smoak was enjoying one of the worst statistical seasons among all major leaguers: .189/.253/.320 in 375 plate appearances and a -1.1 WAR. The fact that the Mariners finally addressed his performance should come as no surprise.

Now 25, Smoak was the centerpiece of the deal that sent Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers in 2010, when he was packaged along with prospects Blake Beaven, Josh Lueke and Matt Lawson. According to Baseball-Reference, Smoak has produced a -0.7 WAR since the trade.

As for Cliff Lee, well, the left-hander has registered an 11.7 WAR, including a ridiculous 8.3 WAR in 2011.

So, I think it’s time we all declare the Justin Smoak acquisition a bust.

Selected by the Texas Rangers with the 11th overall pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, Smoak has simply never lived up to the high expectations following a promising amateur and minor league career. In his first full professional season in 2009, the switch-hitting first baseman batted .290/410/.443 while splitting the year between Double- and Triple-A.

Ranked by Baseball America as the No. 13 prospect in the game headed into the 2010 season, Smoak logged only 15 games at Triple-A Oklahoma City before making his big league debut on April 23. In 70 games with the Rangers, Smoak batted .209/.316/.353 before he was shipped off to the Mariners in July.

Following the trade, he was demoted to Triple-A, where he spent time in Tacoma before being recalled in September. He finished his first season with the Mariners batting .239/.287/.407 in 122 plate appearances.

Entrenched at first base for the Mariners entering the 2011 season, Smoak enjoyed his best major league campaign to date, putting together a .234/.323/.396 slash line with 24 doubles and 15 home runs in 489 plate appearances. Always lauded for his advanced plate discipline and on-base skills—132 K/122 BB over 773 minor league at-bats—his 105 strikeouts and only 55 walks offered reason to be concerned.

The trend carried over into the 2012 season, as Smoak amassed 85 strikeouts and only 29 walks in the 90 games prior to his demotion on Monday night. Furthermore, his perpetually diminishing line-drive percentage had reached a career-worst 15 percent.

Honestly, it’s pretty shocking that the Mariners waited until this week to address their nonexistent offensive production at first base. Much like anyone who watched Smoak’s rise to prominence from South Carolina to the major leagues in less than two years, you still want to believe that the potential is there and that’s he’s finally going to turn the corner—think Alex Gordon in 2011.

However, the reality is that Smoak simply hasn’t developed as hoped since the Mariners acquired him for Lee, one of the game’s most coveted arms at the time. It was a risky move at the time, centering a deal with the potential for a huge return around a first-base-only prospect.

And it’s not as though they got lucky with the other prospects involved, as Beaven (0.1 WAR), Lueke (-0.4 WAR) and Lawson (Double-A, Cleveland Indians) have been essentially worthless. So, remember July 23, 2012 as the day the Justin Smoak-Cliff Lee trade was declared a bust.

I’m not saying that he’s without hope, but Smoak will have to make numerous adjustments from both sides of the plate to warrant a return to Seattle. Don’t be surprised if the Mariners try to pass him off to another hopeful team over the next week, as I’m sure they are already fielding calls about his availability. However, given his struggles, Smoak’s value is at an all-time low, so expecting a favorable return just isn’t realistic.

But just as the Mariners did at this time nearly two years ago, there always seems to be a team willing to take a flyer on him.