You might have heard this before: the Seattle Mariners head into spring training hoping Justin Smoak can step in, take control of the first base position and finally reach his potential as a middle-of-the-order hitter.
Some form of that sentence was typed before each of the 2011 and 2012 seasons. And each time Smoak failed to deliver.
This may be the final year for Smoak to transform his potential into reality.
The Mariners head into 2013 spring training with the hope that a leaner, stronger, swing-adjusted Smoak will finally make himself into not just a productive everyday player, but also the player they hoped he would become when they traded for him in 2010.
But unlike in past years, if Smoak doesn’t come through, the Mariners have plenty of options to fill the spot quite capably. Going into spring training, the Mariners still have Mike Carp and have added proven sluggers Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse.
The Mariners didn’t exactly get a ton of production out of the first base position in 2012. Smoak started 129 games there (plus three as a designated hitter) while Carp, Alex Liddi and Dustin Ackley filled in. The collection of them produced a .228 batting average with a .300 on-base percentage and a .369 slugging percentage. Those are not good numbers for a shortstop, let alone a premium power position.
While playing first base, those players produced a total of 24 home runs.
The most obvious factor in
the shortcoming was Smoak and his early struggles. In the first 90 games, he hit .189 (65-for-344) with 13 homers and 38 RBI. He had an woeful .253 on-base percentage and a .320 slugging percentage with 85 strikeouts. His bat looked slow, his swing looked long and his confidence was nil.
The Mariners had no choice but to option him to Triple-A Tacoma.
With the Rainiers, Smoak worked with then-hitting coach Jeff Pentland on lowering his hands and cutting out his pre-swing movement.
Smoak was recalled on Aug. 14 after Carp went down with an injury, and the changes seemed to work. Over the final 42 games, Smoak hit .288 with eight doubles, six homers and 13 RBI.
“I think he figured some things out,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He didn’t have a very good year by most standards, and I get that. But he still hit 19 home runs. He’s not too far away from 25 (home runs) if he does just OK. And if he’s decent, he hits 30 home runs. So you have to look at it that way.”
Carp played in 23 games at first base last season, but his 2012 was marred by injuries. He played 59 games with the Mariners and had 189 plate appearances, hitting .213 with five homers and 20 RBI.
Even with the addition of Morales and Morse, Wedge wants Smoak to be the team’s first baseman.
“I’ve made it very clear I feel strongly about Justin Smoak and what his abilities are,” Wedge said. “I have every anticipation that he’s going to be our first baseman this year. Now if he shows us something different, then so be it. But he’s coming in as our first baseman and I expect him to take that on and run with it.”
The Mariners asked Smoak to get leaner and stronger in the offseason. He showed up for private workouts having done both.
“The goal was for him to put on good weight,” Mariners trainer Rick Griffin said. “He put on nine pounds and his body fat went down. He looks bigger and stronger. He’s more agile.
“We ran him through a bunch of agility drills. Three years ago when he got here, he could not do the drills. The other day when we did them, he blew right through them.”
Morales hasn’t been an everyday first baseman since he broke his leg in a postgame celebration in 2010. But he maintains that offseason workouts have prepared him to do so if the team wanted.
“At this point, I think I’m 100 percent,” he said through his translator earlier this year. “I’m ready to play every day. Obviously, that’s not my decision. But at the end of the day, I’m confident knowing that I’m 100 percent ready to play first base every day if that’s what’s needed.”
Still, Wedge would rather have Morales at designated hitter most days.
“I see him more in a DH role,” Wedge said. “But I’m very comfortable with him playing first base. I saw enough of him playing against us last year at first base (28 games for the L.A. Angels) to know he can handle himself well over there. You look at the fact he can play some first base, Morse can play some first base, I told (Raul) Ibañez to bring a first-baseman’s glove … I like having the versatility.”
Had the Nationals not re-signed Adam LaRoche to a free agent contract, Morse was slated to be their everyday first baseman. A former shortstop, he has played games at every infield position in his professional career, including 123 games at first base.
“I know I can handle it,” Morse said. “It’s not a problem.”
If Smoak were to somehow struggle in spring training or early in the season, Seattle could option him to Triple A Tacoma and go with Morse at first base and Morales at DH.
The Mariners aren’t bursting with first base prospects. They signed veteran Mike Jacobs, who hit 32 homers and drove in 93 runs in 2008 with the Marlins, but has been mostly in the minors since 2010.
Alex Liddi will play some first base for the Rainiers. The former third base prospect struggled as a bench player in the big leagues, hitting .224 with three homers and 10 RBI in 38 games. After being sent down to Tacoma last season, Liddi hit .270 with 11 homers and 30 RBI in 76 games with the Rainiers.
Beyond that, the Mariners simply don’t have another prospect that could help in the next season or two.