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May 9, 2012 at 9:48 AM

If Justin Smoak is not healthy, Mariners should get him right

We’re coming up on nearly a month since Justin Smoak felt his hamstring tighten during a home game against Oakland. The other day, when Smoak notched one of his rare hits against the Minnesota Twins, he looked disinterested leaving the batter’s box.
I mean, to say he stumbled out of there and lumbered to first base would be charitable. He looked like he actually thought about waving to the dugout and having somebody else run to first for him instead.
And I’m not a trained scout. If I notice these little things in a game — with my amateur eye — then it’s a problem.
Somebody else mentioned to me last night — I did not see the game, but followed it via computer — that Smoak seemed to be lumbering up the line.
I don’t think Smoak is a guy who dogs it out of laziness and if indeed that’s what is happening, somebody has to sit him down for a chat right now. But I highly doubt that’s why he’s jogging out there. It looks to me like Smoak’s hamstring is still an issue — maybe a bigger issue than the team is making it out to be.
And if that’s the case, it’s time to stop all the funny business. It’s time to sit Smoak down and let him get right because playing him every day does not appear to be doing him, the team, nor an increasingly impatient fan base any favors when it comes to the third-year first baseman.
Normally, I would wait until I am in the clubhouse again before writing a piece like this, just so I could ask Smoak and manager Eric Wedge about it flat-out. But I’ll see them both again on Friday in New York and then for a good deal of time every day after that, so I don’t think I’m pulling a hit-and-run here.
Besides, asking the questions face-to-face about Smoak’s health hasn’t gotten us anywhere before.
You’ll remember last year, when Smoak had a bit of a thumb issue. He downplayed it and said it was nothing and Wedge said it was a minor deal that Smoak would have to learn to play through as a big leaguer.
Photo Credit: AP

Fast forward to the off-season and all of a sudden — surprise! — Wedge admits he lied to the media and that Smoak’s thumb condition was actually far more serious than he let on. By the time everyone was done confessing, I was shocked Smoak hadn’t had the thumb amputated.
So, there we go. That explains why Smoak’s numbers were so poor in 2011, right? I mean, many people here and elsewhere actually went out and calculated what his numbers were pre-and-post-thumb-injury, trying to use them to support the idea that, yeah, it really was the thumb that torpedoed his season.
Only thing is, he’s now hitting even worse than he did last year. He’s been all thumbs, so to speak, though both are supposedly healthy.
So, now what’s the excuse?
My problem with the team’s initial statements about Smoak’s thumb last summer don’t have much to do with them deliberately misleading the media. Happens all the time, though, I’ll tell you what, it sets a precedent for how the media will view such claims in the future. Explains why I’m writing this now instead of in two days from now. Why wait if you can’t trust the info you’re going to get? But I can understand protecting a player from being exploited by opposing pitchers. I understand why Wedge was not forthcoming with the truth.
No, my biggest problem is, if Wedge’s revised version on the thumb being serious is actually the truth, why the heck were they playing Smoak at all in July — especially when the team was losing 17 games in a row? Smoak was awful during that stretch. He did nothing to help his team win and probably contributed to several of the losses through his inability to hit his own weight.
I can understand having a young player learn to deal with adversity and tough out minor injuries. Except the team now says the thumb wasn’t a minor issue. OK, then, but you can’t have it both ways.
You could have sent a pylon up to home plate and had it get on base more than Smoak did during parts of that epic streak. Why not sit him down and get him healthy again? The team could have played Mike Carp at first base. Or Adam Kennedy. Or Luis Rodriguez. All of the above almost certainly would have hit better. What good did it do anyone to keep running Smoak out there?
Fast forward to right now.
What I really won’t have time for is if, when the season is over, the team comes out and admits that — “Hey, yeah, man, Smoak’s hamstring was like, almost shredded when he was playing on it in May, so that’s why his numbers were so bad.”
That won’t work as an excuse. The team fired that lone bullet last off-season. They should not be allowed to keep that excuse in reserve for explaining this latest sub-par season from their first baseman.
I have been a staunch Smoak supporter and maintained all winter that I thought he would eventually become a productive first baseman for this team. Too many professionals have staked too much of their reputations on that happening for us to be giving up on Smoak this early in his career.
But if indeed he is hurting, then continuing to run him out there with a sub-.200 batting average and virtually no power to speak of is not doing anyone any good. Even if the team maintains, as it has for several weeks, that the hamstring isn’t impacting Smoak’s ability to swing, how do we really know that for certain? Something is impacting his ability to hit like he’s supposed to. And even if it isn’t the hamstring, what good is it doing to have Smoak go up there and fail every night for weeks on end? We heard two weeks ago in Detroit — after he popped a meatball changeup over the wall — that his swing looked to be coming around. Since then? Nothing. The Mariners have no excuse. In fact, they have plenty of options better than driving Smoak’s numbers six feet underground. They can sit Smoak down for a few days to try to get things right and find more ways to look at Alex Liddi and whether he’s for real.
They have Carp to play first base as well, with barely-used Casper Wells and now, Chone Figgins, able to spell the former in left field.
The Mariners have options other than continung to run Smoak out there night after night. I know he has hit some balls hard (so did Figgins, by the way), like the game-ending flyout in Tampa Bay and gotten unlucky at times. But come on. He isn’t even close to hitting his weight (listed at 230 pounds on the team’s website) and a .178 hitter being sent out there daily to join others in the sub-.200 club isn’t helping the team win. It’s helping the team lose, as it did last summer.
I’m not a fan of sending Smoak to Class AAA right away because he mastered that level already and I don’t know that he’ll learn how to hit off-speed stuff in MLB any better by being down there. That said, if his confidence is waning, then sometimes a team using the AAA options available on a player can do some good just to get him back in the proper groove again.
The Mariners have tried dropping Smoak further in the order and that hasn’t worked.
And then, there’s the lingering health question hovering around a team that admittedly has not always been truthful about Smoak in the past.
At this point, if his health is any concern at all — and there has to be a reason he’s dogging it up the first base line — then I don’t see the harm in sitting him out, getting his head together along with his body and then trying to play him again.
He isn’t Kirk Gibson trying to win the 1988 World Series opener on one good knee. He’s Justin Smoak, in his second full year with a rebuilding team, trying to show that he can live up to expectations. Huge difference in the macho pain tolerance department.
Other than that, I’m not sure what to say. Only that this version of a singles-hitting Smoak (when he does hit) is not what the team traded Cliff Lee for.
If the Mariners are planning to spring a hamstring surprise on everybody later on as justificaton for the numbers, don’t bother. Instead, they should figure out what is wrong with their first baseman of the future and fix it. Preferably, not on a major league field six days per week.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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