With all of the acquisitions made by the Seattle Mariners this offseason, there were plenty of questions to be asked about how the playing time would be distributed, particularly at first base and designated hitter. With the additions of Kendrys Morales, Mike Morse and Raul Ibanez, it appeared like incumbent first baseman Justin Smoak was going to be the odd man out and be left to come off the bench or get traded away.
But not so fast, according to manager Eric Wedge, who says Smoak is still the man at first.
It was easy to see why the M’s felt they needed to get some new blood into their lineup and why Smoak would conceivably be pushed out. Since coming to Seattle from the Texas Rangers, Smoak has been inconsistent at the plate, striking out way too often as he failed to get on base and not providing the power numbers to make it easy to overlook. He had failed to live up to his potential and was ripe to be pushed aside for an upgrade.
And so it appeared he had been when Seattle acquired Morales (1B/DH), Morse (1B/OF/DH) and Ibanez (OF/DH), along with the presence of Jesus Montero at catcher and DH. The moves created a logjam at first base and designated hitter, which didn’t seem to favor Smoak staying in his starter’s role. His chance to shine, it appeared, had passed in Seattle.
But Wedge still believes in the 26-year old slugger. At the team’s spring training luncheon on Wednesday, the manager says that he envisions Smoak as the first baseman with Morales as the main designated hitter. That would put Montero as the primary catcher and push Morse into playing primarily in the outfield, leaving Ibanez as a bat off the bench for pinch hitting and spot starts in the outfield.
Smoak earned his manager’s trust through tremendous hard work that began when he was sent down to Triple-A Tacoma late last season. While there, he worked with hitting coach Jeff Pentland to shorten his swing and stride, which yielded immediate results with a hot September following his call-up back to the majors.
He’s continued that hard work throughout the off-season, continuing to work side by side with Seattle’s batting coaches as well as getting involved in a rigorous conditioning program. Smoak has trimmed 15-20 pounds off his frame which should help him cover the plate, particularly when he bats left-handed, where he’s struggled with pitches on the outer half and down in the zone.
Smoak had tremendous upside when he came to Seattle, which is part of the reason that the M’s pulled the trigger on the deal. So far, he’s failed to live up to that potential, but seems to be responding to the added competition for playing time by stepping up his off-season work which will hopefully unlock that potential we have yet to see.
The leash will undoubtedly be short for Smoak, and a quick start will be crucial for him to keep his spot, but for now, the Mariners seem content to roll with the young switch-hitter as the season approaches. Will M’s fans be treated to a barrage of Smoak bombs or will it be the same old disappointment? Either way, it seems some healthy competition is doing the Mariners’ roster good.