The Seattle Mariners have made several moves this offseason to try and add some offense to their lineup, seemingly frustrated by the lack of firepower over the last several seasons. All the new additions will bring questions about where they fit in the field and in a lineup, as manager Eric Wedge will have some tough decisions regarding playing time in his near future. That also puts pressure on the players to impress the team quickly, and nobody is feeling that pressure quite like incumbent first baseman Justin Smoak.
Smoak came to Seattle in the trade that sent Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers back in 2010. Since coming to the Pacific Northwest, Smoak has struggled to consistently provide the presence at the plate that the team hoped he would develop into. Though just 26, he’s widely panned as a disappointment with a low average and high strike out totals without enough consistent home run production to make up for it.
Last season, Smoak batted just .217 with a .290 on-base percentage and .364 slugging percentage. He drove in 51 runs and hit 19 home runs while drawing 49 walks, but struck out a career-high 111 times. Despite career-highs in at-bats, hits and home runs, the inconsistent approach at the plate and regularly empty at-bats hurt the team and pushed them to find some other options this winter.
And options aplenty there shall be. The M’s brought in more bodies than they could use for the first base/designated hitter/left fielder role, trading for Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales while signing Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay in free agency. There won’t likely be much room for any of them in the other outfield spots either, with Michael Saunders and Franklin Gutierrez returning to the starting lineup.
Smoak recognizes that the team has actively brought in his replacements and responded by spending the last week working with the team’s new hitting coach. He understands how important it will be for him to hit the ground running come spring training. He’s worn out his margin for error over the last two seasons and a slow start in 2013 will bury Smoak on the bench and make it difficult for him to get much playing time at all this season, barring a trade.
So how will Smoak react to the pressure? Will he be able to step and up and act on some of that potential that made the M’s trade away Cliff Lee? Or will one of the newcomers be the better option and force Smoak to the bench? With spring training rapidly approaching, we’ll find out soon enough.