Before the 2010 Seattle Mariners were historically awful, there was the promise that they would be good, or at least interesting. That was a Mariners team with Cliff Lee on it. Cliff Lee! As in, like, the Cliff Lee. When that team turned out to be what it was, Lee became the best piece of trade bait on the market. The Mariners waited until the last second before turning the biggest chip on the table into a package of Texas Rangers prospects, headlined by Justin Smoak. Who, as of today’s waiver claim, is a Toronto Blue Jay.
We all remember how Smoak was celebrated in Seattle. At the time of his arrival he was a rookie struggling to stay above the Mendoza line, but he also had more home runs than anyone else on the team. We all remember how the front office gushed about him, and of course who could forget the commercial where he’s out in the forest punching down trees? Smoak was brought to Seattle to provide value as a power hitter.
Smoak has 2,218 plate appearances in the major leagues. His isolated slugging percentage over that time is .156, which is the same as the current-day version of Ryan Howard. In fact, Howard’s a pretty good comparison for Smoak: slow-footed first baseman who doesn’t hit for average or power. A worthless, replacement level player. Except that Howard at least used to be good.
Some players are lauded for skills they simply don’t have, with Derek Jeter‘s defense serving as the timeless example. Smoak, according to broadcasters, could really pick it at first base. A defensively gifted first baseman with some pop in his bat. But Smoak only once so much as slugged over .400, and that high water mark was a paltry .412. Defensively, FanGraphs has him as having cost the Mariners over forty runs since his acquisition. For some reason, folks insistently ignored these truths while promoting Smoak as a big part of the team’s present and future.
Managers, too, treated Smoak as something he simply wasn’t. A stunning number of plate appearances were devoted to Justin Smoak, Cleanup Hitter. Look at an MLB.com article and maybe you see Smoak as a big-time cleanup guy who’s just, you know, having a tough go of it right now. Or look at his career accomplishments and see a number nine hitter, or more realistically, a minor leaguer. The Mariners were often at least forced to acknowledge this reality, as Smoak has AAA plate appearances in each of his years in Seattle.
Justin Smoak is a symbol of wasted resources, but he shouldn’t be, not necessarily. He was a popular prospect, and one who came with real pedigree. But those guys don’t always pan out, which is just the nature of prospects. No, what Smoak ought to represent is the frantic desire to make good on a deal gone bad. That’s how a waste of a roster spot was able to bat well over two thousand times – the Mariners really, really didn’t want to admit they’d “lost” that Cliff Lee trade. So they made their own situation worse.
If the Mariners had let Smoak go on waivers a year ago nobody would have minded. If they’d done it two years ago it still would have been a fine move. He’s been dead weight for about as long as any player can get away with being dead weight. His continued presence on the roster – and in the lineup – had less to do with his own abilities and more to do with the abilities of the ace pitcher for whom he was once traded.
For the time being, it looks like Logan Morrison is the guy in Seattle. When the Mariners acquired Morrison a year ago, the move was laughed at because the new guy had so much in common with the old guy. But while Smoak’s on the way out of town with -0.2 career WAR, Morrison quietly is at 1.9 over essentially the same stretch of time but with 400 or so fewer plate appearances. Morrison’s not great, and in the past he’s been downright lousy. But he’s clearly a better player than Smoak.
Toronto now gets to pay Smoak, and it’s kind of a weird fit. The Jays have Adam Lind, but he’s supposedly a lock to be traded. They’d be wise to keep first base open for Edwin Encarnacion, who, one notes, was a bust until he was traded to Toronto and started going nuts. Ditto Jose Bautista. With those two in mind, it’s tempting to say Smoak’s now in the perfect place to finally blossom. Which, who knows! Maybe! But probably not.
Justin Smoak came to Seattle brimming with promise. He leaves Seattle as perhaps the biggest bust on a team where just about everyone was a bust, save for Kyle Seager. Smoak won’t be missed because he couldn’t get on base, couldn’t hit for power, couldn’t field his position, and couldn’t run the bases. No more Smoak Bombs, no more punches that can take down a tree. Tim-ber! Have fun in Toronto, Justin. Hope it goes well.