I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Seattle Mariners have been the biggest surprise in baseball this season. New GM Jack Zduriencik brought with his a flurry of acquisitions this offseason, and many pundits predicted Zduriencik’s aggressive wheeling and dealing could lead the M’s to the top of the AL West, with Ichiro, Felix Hernandez, and Cliff Lee appearing on the cover of ESPN's MLB preview. With a lineup focused on speed and run prevention to compliment a stacked starting rotation, the 2010 season looked like smooth sailing for the Mariners.
Instead, Seattle's ship has sunk, to the tune of a 49-76 record. Though pitching and defense has worked for other teams (the NL-best Padres come to mind), the Mariners’ formula seems to require a little more power. Selling at the deadline was hardly a decision for this team, and with Cliff Lee headed toward free agency, they were the proud owners of the undisputed most valuable trade chip on the market.
There were no shortage of offers for Lee. The Yankees reportedly presented a package headlined by top prospect Jesus Montero. The Twins tempted Zduriencik by offering Wilson Ramos and Aaron Hicks. However, Seattle finally accepted Jon Daniels’ offer, sending Lee to Texas for a package headlined by the Rangers’ top prospect Justin Smoak. Smoak, a 24-year-old switch-hitting first baseman, adds an immediate dose of power to the Mariners’ lineup.
While Smoak’s 2010 has been somewhat disappointing, Mariners fans will be glad to know that much of his poor line is due simply to his hard-hit balls finding gloves more often than one would expect. Smoak’s 2010 BABIP sits at .232, which becomes even more surprising considering his 22.6% line drive rate is 11th in the league. Smoak’s 26.5% K rate is a little higher than the Mariners might like to see, but fellow rookie Ike Davis sits just above him with a 27.5%(identical to Ryan Howard’s mark), and Prince Fielder is just below at 25.5%, so his K rate won’t necessarily prevent him from being successful. Also of note, Smoak walks more than either Howard or Davis. His 10 home runs in limited major league time this season give us an idea that he will be a power threat, but expect him to pair that power with an OBP significantly higher than the .288 he’s had in the majors this year.
Smoak’s minor league numbers give us a better idea of where he could end up as a hitter. He posted an Isolated Power of .240 with the Rangers before his callup, and since being sent back down by the Mariners has put up a .192. He’s raking in Triple A and his advanced stats give us no reason to expect that he can’t continue to do so in the majors next year.
Smoak’s 2010 may look unimpressive so far, but his underlying numbers reveal a middle-of-the-order bat ready to break out in 2011. Seattle fans should look for Smoak to continue hitting for power, with a gap-to-gap approach that will result in gaudy extra base hit totals and the potential for 15-25 home runs next year and possibly more in the 30+ range later in his career.
So wait til next year, Mariners fans, but expect next year to bring a little more pop in a potential breakout year for Justin Smoak. Check back tomorrow, when we’ll be taking a look at two Indians hitters with some serious upside- one already tearing up the majors, and another who’s not far behind.