Seattle Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak hasn’t lived up to the high expectations M’s fans had for him after he was acquired from the Texas Rangers in 2010 as the main piece in the Cliff Lee trade. In the first half of 2013 it looked like the 26 year-old first baseman might have turned a corner, as he was hitting .272/.372/.431 before the All-Star break. But, in the second half, his lofty .331 in-play batting average dropped to .220, and his strikeout rate climbed to 24.2 percent. By season’s end, his numbers were .238/.334/.412, very pedestrian marks for a first baseman. Smoak compiled an awful .192/.274/.274 line from the right side of the plate, suggesting he’s more of a platoon bat.
Over four big-league seasons, Smoak has a career .227/.314/.386 line, good for a 97 OPS+ and -0.1 fWAR. He’s received 1942 plate appearances, a hefty sum for what has been essentially a replacement level player. Fangraphs’ Steamer projection system calls for a .231/.328/.404 line with 0.8 fWAR for Smoak in 2014. A slight improvement, but hardly the stuff of an everyday player.
Does Justin Smoak have any upside, or should the Mariners move on once they can find another warm body to fill his spot? After all, 2013 first-round pick D.J. Peterson looks like the kind of quick mover that could challenge for a starting job as early as 2015.
To help answer this question, I used the Baseball Reference Play Index to look into all first basemen since 1961 that had produced similar numbers to Smoak at a similar point in their careers. I went up to a player’s age-28 season, and set a minimum of 1500 plate appearances.
The results weren’t pretty. Of the thirteen players other than Soak that met the criteria, J.T. Snow had the most career fWAR with 12.6. David Segui and his 11.7 fWAR was the only other player to reach double digits. Both Snow and Segui were mediocre players that had long careers. They each averaged less than 1.3 fWAR per 600 plate appearances. Segui was the only player on the list to have a career OPS+ of 110 or higher. The list also featured failed top prospects. Casey Kotchman and Travis Lee were each ranked in Baseball America’s top ten prospects. Between them, they totaled less than 10 fWAR.
In summary, history is not on the side of Justin Smoak. He’s almost 27, and with four big league seasons under his belt, the top prospect pedigree doesn’t do much for him anymore. Sometimes he’ll do things like hitting this home run, and you’ll get your hopes up, but then he’ll hit .203 in the second half. With D.J. Peterson waiting in the wings, 2014 may be Smoak’s last chance to show he can be an everyday player, if he even gets that chance. The numbers and history both show he may not have earned it.