Obtained as the prize of a trade package that reeked of something rotten the moment the Seattle Mariners unwrapped it, Justin Smoak was touted to be a future star at first base.
And for a while — for a few days, anyway — Smoak followed through on the expectations he’d created since dazzling scouts in high school. Between May 28 and June 3 in 2012, Smoak went on a six-game tear that found him hitting .348 with three homers, eight RBIs, six walks and seven runs scored.
Smoak’s breakout performance earned him American League Player of the Week honors.
So there’s that.
In the wake of Smoak’s long anticipated departure — he was claimed off waivers Tuesday by the Toronto Blue Jays — Mariners fans are welcome to wince at what general manager Jack Zduriencik got from Texas in return for ace left-handed pitcher Cliff Lee, who four years ago appeared to be the ultimate deadline-deal trading chip.
Turns out Zduriencik got, in no particular order: Matt Lawson, a second baseman who never made it out of the minor leagues; Blake Beavan, a serviceable Triple-A starting pitcher who hasn’t held a Mariners’ rotation spot since 2012; Josh Lueke, a reliever eventually traded to Tampa Bay, and Smoak, whose AL Player of the Week award offered a here-today, gone-tomorrow glimpse of his unrealized potential.
Some trades take years to be analyzed in hindsight. The Cliff Lee trade went south as soon as Lueke’s criminal past was revealed. Arrested for rape in 2008, Lueke pleaded no contest to the lesser charge of false imprisonment with violence.
Were the Mariners aware of Lueke’s legal troubles? Although Chuck Armstrong, the club’s president in 2010, insisted he was caught off guard, it’s unlikely everybody in the front office was hoodwinked. Pitching coach Rick Adair had served a similar role in the Rangers’ minor league system. He knew all about Lueke.
The fiasco didn’t cost Zduriencik his job, but it almost certainly led to the firing of his childhood friend Carmen Fusco, the pro scouting director responsible for researching the backgrounds of players acquired in trades.
In any case, the mess could have been mitigated by Smoak’s emergence from coveted prospect to everyday player. That never happened. Projected to be a middle-of-the-order switch hitter with adequate power and solid defensive skills, Smoak turned his Seattle career into a case study of how difficult it is to gauge a baseball player’s potential.
It’s easy to blame Zduriencik for whiffing on Smoak, but he wasn’t alone. Smoak’s credentials, thanks to three stellar seasons at the University of South Carolina, were gaudy. Selected No. 11 overall in the 2008 draft (USA Today credited the Rangers for scoring the draft’s “top value” pick), Smoak was named the USA Baseball Athlete of the Year in 2009.
The Rangers, more impressed by Smoak’s press clippings than his actual body of work, decided the 23-year old was ready for the majors after only 69 games at Triple A.
Upon watching Smoak struggle in a Mariners uniform, Zdurincik concluded the prospect was victim of a fast-track promotion, and sent him to Tacoma.
A trend was set: Smoak would begin spring training with dibs on the Mariners’ first-base position, and he’d end up trying to figure out his hitting stroke with the Rainiers.
Manager Lloyd McClendon was the latest, and maybe the last, among those baseball insiders who saw Smoak as a sleeping giant. McClendon emphasized the importance of using the whole field at the plate, and settling for doubles lined into the gap instead of home runs.
Smoak finished 2014 with 13 doubles and seven homers, proving himself as not much of a gap hitter, or a hitter of any persuasion. His .202 batting average deflated a career slash line — .224/.309/.380 — that defines ineptitude.
Smoak’s accelerated trek to the majors did him no favors, but it’s also irrelevant. He turns 28 in December. He’s made 2,218 plate appearances against big-league pitching, enough of a sample size to reiterate the fact big-league pitchers regarded him as the easiest out in a 2014 Mariners lineup stocked with easy outs.
Perhaps moving to Toronto will reinvigorate Smoak or, more accurately, invigorate him. That’s not a prediction, just a hope, because he’s a good guy who reacted to his annual Triple-A demotions with the polish of a pro who understands how pro baseball works: If you don’t succeed at one level, you try again at a lower level.
However virtuous his go-with-the-flow attitude is, Smoak’s resilience never will be appreciated by Mariners fans. He was the main man in a trade construed to bolster the roster with a bundle of young talent, and he flopped.
Zduriencik sensed greatness. McClendon tried to dumb that notion down a notch, and sensed a reliable doubles hitter.
The rest of us? We saw neither. All we saw was a left-handed hitter dominated by right-handed pitchers, and a right-handed hitter dominated by lefties.
Oh, and for six days during the spring of 2012, we saw the AL Player of the Week — a sneak preview of what should have been, what could have been, but what never was.
A nutshell history of 99.9 percent of baseball prospects, right there.