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Flames: No mirrors needed, Smoak’s emergence for real

Brad Evans
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Smoakin


On shallow-league wires throughout April one commodity smoldered practically unnoticed. As owners frantically scoured free agency for the services of Ryan Roberts, Alex Avila and the entire Cardinals bullpen, bellowed signals emitted by the hot product were continuously ignored. No alarm sounded. Panic never set in. The virtual masses paid little attention.

They should have. After all, where there's Smoak, there's fire.

Over the past several weeks, Seattle's Justin Smoak has quietly wielded a blistering bat. Cocked, locked and loaded, he's rocketed balls with regularity, often finding green pasture between the lines and occupied seats in the bleachers. Since April 13, he's compiled a .304 BA with five homers and 18 RBI, a balanced line good enough for a top-12 ranking among first baseman. Despite outproducing such roster heavyweights as Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira and Paul Konerko during that stretch, few have plucked him off waivers.

Maybe it's the lack of media attention. Maybe it's the Mariners' misperceived futility. Maybe it's the purposeful blindness of former owners scorned. Whatever the reason, the 50-percent owned Smoak needs to be rostered in just about any sized league. {YSP:MORE}

The jewel of the Cliff Lee deal, the former Rangers top prospect has started to live up to expectation. He's worked counts deeper, drawn more walks and driven the ball more vigorously, attacking fastballs with increased success. Smoak has also made significant progress against southpaws (.333 BA), a major developmental step. After hitting a lowly .218 last season, he's responded with a .291 clip thus far. Assuming his below-average line-drive rate (12.7) rises, bagel-consuming days should remain far behind in the review mirror.

Many locals have clamored for Eric Wedge to elevate the hot-hitting youngster from fifth to fourth in the lineup. Because Smoak is batting .385 with runners in scoring position, their demands are justified. But the stubborn manager refuses to change the guard. Despite a combined .125 RISP average, Miguel Olivo and Adam Kennedy, a pair that would struggle to clean-up a Honey Smacks disaster in aisle five, will continue to be juggled at the RBI-friendly spot for the foreseeable future. From the Kitsap Sun:

Yes, there's the temptation to bump Smoak up a spot, but Wedge won't budge.

"That's a discipline that I need to maintain," Wedge said. "He's a young player, he's where he needs to be right now and that's where I'm going to keep him. It's up to other people to do their job to fill in the other spots."

Can there be that much difference between the fourth and fifth spots, especially when No. 4 is crying for a hitter like Smoak?

"It's more of a difference for him," Wedge said. "There's that thing with the four hole. Somebody put that cleanup mark on it a long time ago, and I'd like to punch them in the face. But the bottom line is that there is that stigma with it.

"I think the players look at it as an additional responsibility and additional expectation. One thing I learned a long time ago, to handle the responsibility and the accountability and the expectations that come along with being a big-league ballplayer, you'd sure as hell better be able to handle that sooner rather than later. Otherwise, it'll get you in the end."

Two ideas to take away from the comments above: 1) Unless you're angling for a bloody lip, never, ever drop the "C" word in Wedge's presence; 2) Though it may seem nutty to continue to roll with Olivo/Kennedy in the four-spot, Wedge's perspective is far from delusional. Some guys do place unnecessary pressure onto themselves when thrust into a perceived stressful position. The astute manager is simply setting up his young slugger for continued success. However, now that Milton Bradley has finally been consumed by a Hungry, Hungry Hippo, Smoak could find a niche as the M's' newest three-hitter. In that spot on Tuesday, he went 1-for-4 with an RBI and two walks.

Many will question the 24-year-old's true power upside. The cavernous specs of SAFECO combined with his questionable homer rates at the minor league level suggest 20 bombs is his upper-limit. Yes, the unforgiving environment will likely poach five or so homers, but with an ISO (.233) on par with premier boppers Ryan Howard and Miguel Cabrera, he's no Daric Barton.

On pace for a .290-20-100-70 campaign, think of him as the Gaby Sanchez of the Left Coast, an overlooked, productive first baseman in 12-team mixers.

Owners looking for sound production across four categories, Smoak 'em if you got 'em.

Fearless Forecast (rest of season): 484 at-bats, .276 BA, 16 HR, 76 RBI, 63 R, 2 SB

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Interesting commodities owned in 20 percent or fewer of Yahoo! leagues

Mark Trumbo, LAA, 1B (14-percent owned) — Following the Andrew Bynum program to slow recovery, Kendrys Morales still appears to be several weeks away from a return, no matter what he gleans from a second opinion. Plugging the gap, Trumbo should continue to see regular at-bats. His 28:6 K:BB split is extremely hard to digest, but working counts deeper and making harder contact of late, he's definitely worth owning in resource-thin mixers. Since April 29, he's collected 11 hits, three homers and eight RBIs. If he's able to maintain a more patient approach, the youngster is capable of racking above average power numbers over the next month plus. Recall he blasted 36 jacks at Triple-A Salt Lake last year. He's also tallied a .348 BA with runners in scoring position. Over the next few weeks, it wouldn't be a stretch if he outperformed more prominently owned corner infielders Brett Wallace, Mitch Moreland and Chipper Jones. Sound the horn.

Freddy Garcia, NYY, SP (12-percent) — In what surely has to be an apocalyptic sign — Save the date! May 21, 2011 — Bartolo Colon and Garcia have resurrected their careers on the same roster and during the same year. Now four years removed from major shoulder surgery, the veteran recently told MLB.com he finally feels "healthy." Revitalized and focused, he's posted vintage results striking out 7.55 batters per nine, his highest K pace since '07. Without an overpowering fastball, finesse is the name of the game for Garcia. This year, he's relied more heavily on his splitter, enticing hitters to jab weakly outside the zone. No surprise, he's coaxed more swinging strikes and less contact. Because of his 3.77 BB/9 and queasy amount of homers yielded, the odds of him maintaining an ERA below 3.00 are akin to Derek Jeter recording another multi-homer game. But considering his plus support and uptick in strikeouts, Garcia is at least stream-worthy in shallow formats. It's certainly possible he finishes around 13 wins, 4.00 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 150 Ks.

Anthony Rizzo, SD, 1B (one-percent owned) — San Diego is renown for is beautiful Pacific coastline, temperate climate, Gas Lamp night scene and shirt-soaking orcas. Unfortunately for the Friars faithful, the iconic city is also known for its inability to score runs. The Pads are, as expected, two levels below atrocious offensively, averaging an NL-worst 3.1 runs per game. The ballyhooed top prospect, acquired from Boston in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, could cure their woes. In the hitter-friendly PCL, Rizzo has raked, totaling a .393 BA with 10 homers and 43 RBIs over just 122 at-bats. Despite his torrid start, San Diego GM Jed Hoyer steadfastly believes the 21-year-old is "an unfinished product" who needs additional seasoning in Tuscon. In other words, "he's a future stud who won't eventually force our organization to sell Shamu to the Russian mob for cash in order to keep on roster." Placeholders Jorge Cantu and Brad Hawpe offer little excitement offensively. Both are batting below the Mendoza Line and have combined for the same number of RBIs as Danny Valencia. If Rizzo continues to scorch in the desert, he should receive a promotion no later than mid-June. Petco will be an adjustment, but he's the closest answer to Eric Hosmer the NL has. Fo shizzo, deep leaguers! Stash the Rizzo.

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