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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

April 28, 2011 at 10:24 AM

Smoak, Pineda development make Mariner struggles more tolerable

tigerstadium.jpg

(With the Mariners in Detroit, I thought I’d reprise this picture from last year, when Dave Niehaus, Kevin Cremin and director of baseball information Tim Hevly made a pilgrimmage to old Tiger Stadium. Here’s the blog post I wrote, which becomes even more poignant with Dave’s passing).

I felt going into this Mariner season that if nothing else came out of this year, they needed to see positive advancement from Justin Smoak, Michael Pineda and Dustin Ackley to feel halfway decent about the future.

So far — and it’s still way too early to make any positive declarations — they’re looking good on two out of the three. Smoak is providing more and more signs he can be that elusive middle of the order hitter the Mariners have been needing — and seeking — for so long. Heading into Thursday’s game, he had a .302/.408/.571 slash line, which is a thing of beauty. Beyond the numbers, it’s a perception thing. Smoak looks like a dangerous hitter up there. Even when he has struggled, you can definitely see the prototype of a patient yet potent power hitter (say that fast three times).

We all know that Jack Zduriencik has more riding on Smoak than anyone else. Everyone now is aware that he could have had catching prospect Jesus Montero of the Yankees in a Cliff Lee deal, but he liked the Rangers’ package better. The ancillary players in that trade might turn into useful pieces for the Mariners, but the trade will ultimately be judged on how Smoak fares compared to Montero. There remain major questions about whether Montero will ever be a major-league catcher defensively, but few doubt he will hit. Right now, he’s at Class AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre, sidelined by a groin injury. Through 14 games, Montero has been red-hot at the plate, hitting .407 with a .400 on-base percentage (that’s what happens when you have 0 walks) and a .525 slugging percentage (with one homer and four RBI). Impressive, but Smoak is doing it at the major-league level. This comparison will take years to play out, but right now Smoak has the edge.

I remember at the time of the trade hearing that some scouts were down on Smoak. They felt that his swing from the left side had too many pieces and wouldn’t work, that his bat speed from the other side was a tick slow, that he was inadequate defensively, and he didn’t have an athletic body. The term “doughy” was used. Sorry, but I don’t see any of that. In fact, the more Smoak settles into the big leagues, the more self-assured and confident he looks. He hasn’t looked slow at the plate, he’s fielded his position well, and rather than “doughy,” he seems to me to have a classic slugger’s physique.

As for Pineda, he’s obviously been outstanding thus far this season. I’m sure there will be growing pains, particularly as he starts seeing teams a second time, but with the electric stuff he has, and the command, he looks every bit like a potential top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Just watching him strike out Miguel Cabrera on a diabolical slider today spoke volumes for what kind of potential he has, once he hones his secondary pitches. But even now, raw as he is, he’s been one of the most dominating pitchers in the league so far this year. The Mariners’ worst-case scenario would have been to bring Pineda to the majors, have him struggle and hit lit up, and then have to send him down, his confidence shaken. It has been quite the opposite result, however. His early success is raising his confidence.

Ackley is still finding his way at Class AAA Tacoma, and will have plenty of time this year to make his mark. In 20 games, he’s hitting .235 with two homers and six RBIs. He has just five extra-base-hits, which is a bit alarming. He’s walked 14 times, helping build a .347 on-base percentage. Ackley remains on a timetable to join the Mariners sometime in late May or early June, at which point we can start to truly gauge if he can be added to the list of positive developments in 2011. And by then, we’ll know more clearly whether Pineda and Smoak are just early-season mirages.

The Mariners are still a mess, with way too many soft spots in their lineup. But as Smoak and Pineda continue to develop, there’s at least the basis for some future hope.

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