After four-plus seasons of frustration and unfulfilled potential with the Seattle Mariners, Justin Smoak was prepared to spend last offseason in search of a fresh start with a new club.
But it turned out he didnt have to search at all. The Toronto Blue Jays claimed him off waivers in October, and it wasn’t difficult to project that as a positive move for the 28-year-old first baseman if for no other reason than the fact that he was leaving Safeco Field where he hit just .205 with 27 home runs in 244 games and stepping into the much more hitter-friendly Rogers Centre.
Smoak played in his first game at Safeco on Friday night since leaving Seattle, and spoke before the game about his new role north of the border.
“I think the first reaction was shocked,” Smoak said, asked his initial thoughts upon being claimed by Toronto. “I didn’t think somebody was going to pick me up. I figured I’d be most likely looking for a job all offseason, trying to see what was out there, but I was excited. And being in a hitters ballpark is always exciting.”
More exciting, surely, than his time as a Mariner, which yielded a slash line of .226/.308/.384 in 496 games from the end of 2010 through 2014.
In 163 plate appearances this season with Toronto, Smoak is batting .241 -- higher than any other season in his career -- with nine homers and a .490 slugging percentage.
So, is it the fit he hoped for?
“I think so,” Smoak said. “Great team, great lineup, and I feel like the chances I’ve gotten to play, I’ve done pretty well. Just hopefully get in there more often.”
The Mariners, he said, “gave me a lot of opportunities, and I’m thankful for that. But at the end of the day, I think it comes down to business, and that’s part of it, and you move on.”
Smoak said that “at times” he grew frustrated with trying to hit at Safeco -- “there’s guys there that will tell you now they get frustrated with it,” he said -- but he “loved playing here.”
“It’s just a different ballpark (in Toronto) than playing here,” he said. “The ball flies a little better. I’m a guy that’s always hit the ball in the air, and it didn’t go too well (in Seattle).”
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said he’s glad Smoak seems to be adjusting well in Toronto.
“Smoaky’s a very delightful young man,” McClendon said. “I’m happy that he’s having the success that he’s having. I think he’s in the right ballpark and been doing a nice job for them.”
Charlie Furbush, the Mariners dependable but currently injured lefty reliever, had a setback in his recovery from biceps tendinitis and “hasn’t progressed as well as we thought he would,” McClendon said. H’es expected to throw a flat-ground bullpen session in the next day or so, then begin throwing off a mound.
The Mariners eagerly await Furbush’s return. But McClendon said he’s been pleased with the job left-hander Vidal Nuno has done in place of Furbush as a setup man.
Nuno has posted a 2.16 ERA in 16 2/3 innings with the Mariners this season.
“He’s done a tremendous job for us,” McClendon said of Nuno, who came to Seattle along with Mark Trumbo in the trade that sent Dominic Leone and Welington Castillo to Arizona. “He’s a really, really nice swing guy that you can put a lot of trust in. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff but he throws strikes, knows his way around the mound, knows how to manipulate hitters. I’ve been impressed with what Ive seen.”
As has become customary when the Blue Jays visit Seattle, thousands of blue-clad Toronto fans filled Safeco Field with loud support for the visiting team -- including a hearty chant of “M-V-P” when third baseman Josh Donaldson came to bat.
The first time McClendon witnessed this Toronto phenomenon -- last season, his first with the Mariners -- he was taken aback.
“I’d have to say last year, I was shocked,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that. In fact, I said, ‘what the hell’s going on?” It’s OK. Were looking forward to it now. It’s time for us to start playing the type of baseball were capable of playing at home.”
The Mariners continue their three-game series against Toronto with a rare 1:10 p.m. Saturday game at Safeco Field (the early start is to avoid a conflict with Seafair). Mariners left-hander J.A. Happ (4-5, 4.12 ERA), who spent the last three seasons with the Blue Jays, will face his former team. Right-hander Drew Hutchison (9-2, 5.19), who was scheduled to start Friday’s game but was scratched due to illness, is tentatively scheduled to start Saturday for the Blue Jays.