Smoak’s new address includes rebuilding

Justin Smoak has played for six teams – four minors and now two majors – in his short career.
(John Froschauer/AP Photo)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Justin Smoak(notes) – 23 years old, broad-shouldered, very determined and just a little lost – is what it looks like when today becomes tomorrow, when the season is gone in July and 70 meaningless games lie ahead.

He just as easily could have been Jesus Montero(notes), the New York Yankees prospect. Or Domonic Brown(notes), the next big thing in Philly. Maybe Yonder Alonso(notes), expected one day soon in Cincinnati.

Instead, it was Smoak who was kicked from a pennant race, from Texas to Seattle, from 4½ games up to hopeless, from an apartment in Arlington to a meeting Monday morning with a Seattle real estate agent.

He’s the first demoralizing footfall in the surrender and the first brick laid in the rebuild, so Mariners fans will be glad to know there’s nothing in the game Justin Smoak doesn’t believe he can do – or won’t do – someday. Maybe soon. Hopefully soon.

While the whole thing ended about five months earlier than folks in Seattle may have presumed, at least tomorrow comes wrapped in 220 pounds over 6-feet-4 inches of power bat (from the right and left), and in a deft glove hand, and in the most even-tempered country demeanor this side of Goose Creek, S.C., his hometown.

Smoak is the guy they got for Cliff Lee(notes), who was the guy they got to topple the Los Angeles Angels, the latter of which turned out to be a colossal misplay. Five Cliff Lees would not have saved the Mariners, whose league-worst offense simply has to work too hard to score runs.

As it turned out, over seven months, the trades that acquired and then jettisoned Lee cost them two minor league pitchers (J.C. Ramirez, Phillippe Aumont(notes)), a minor-league outfielder (Tyson Gillies) and power arm Mark Lowe(notes). The trades brought two minor league pitchers (Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke), a minor league infielder (Matt Lawson) and the young man who a couple Fridays ago sat in numbed silence when Rangers officials told him he’d been traded.

“The hardest part was, I didn’t see it coming,” Smoak said. “I was pretty shocked. You feel like you want to prove yourself to them, prove yourself to your teammates. Then, overnight, stuff changes.”

He sat in silence for so long that Rangers general manager Jon Daniels finally asked, “What are your thoughts?”

The truth was, he had none. So he asked, “What’s the next step to get where I need to be?”

Five minutes later, he was packing for Seattle. A day later, he was batting sixth for the Mariners against the Yankees, striking out three times in four at-bats. He was starting over again.

Drafted 11th overall out of South Carolina in 2008, Smoak played in 135 minor league games before coming to the big leagues in late April. Counting four minor league stops and now two more in the majors, he’s yet to play as many as 75 games in any one place.

That’s a lot, fast, even for a talent such as Smoak. He’s called home a lot, often to his father, Keith, who, among other fatherly services, taught Justin to hit left-handed, making him a switch-hitter. It’s easy to say baseball is a game of failure until it starts happening to you. By Friday, Justin was batting .202, including one hit in his first 12 at-bats as a Mariner.

“Somehow,” Justin said, “he’s always got that one little thing to say that’ll make me mad or change the world. Sometimes, that one little thing sparks something.”

On Friday afternoon, Keith Smoak described the conversations as, “The usual father-son talks. Sometimes we laugh – or try to laugh – about striking out on a changeup in the dirt. I’ll say, ‘What were you thinking about? That’s not like you.’ ”

Smoak's home run against the Angels was his first as a Mariner.
(Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Justin played 196 college games. Keith attended 192 of them. No one knows Justin’s swing better. So, there are difficult days, difficult questions and sometimes no answers. But, my gosh, what lies ahead – that’s where the focus lies.

“He’s handled it very well,” Keith said. “I’m sure there’s probably a little anxiety there. Anywhere you go, in any job, you want to be accepted. But he’s kind of a laid-back guy. He doesn’t let things excite him too bad. He grew up that way.”

From his own perspective, Keith said, “Every dad wants to know his son fits somewhere.”

Seattle it is, to the bottom of the American League West, and another coaching staff, and a whole new set of teammates. Justin Smoak thought he’d be a Ranger forever, and now he’s got a whole new forever, assuming he believes in that sort of stuff anymore.

“I always tell him,” Keith said, “his next job is his next baseball field. Tomorrow’s another day at the ballpark.”

In fact, he told him that just Friday afternoon.

This time the ballpark happened to be in Anaheim, where Justin was hitless in 16 at-bats, and against the Angels, against whom he was hitless in 23 at-bats. In the second inning against Jered Weaver(notes), he got a fastball, middle-away, and lined it into right field for a single. So, maybe it was turning. He’d had trouble with off-speed pitches, those changeups in the dirt he’d not swung at before, but fastballs were different.

Five innings later, Weaver set him up for another changeup. Behind in the count, 1-and-2, Smoak hit this changeup into the right-field seats. The home run was his ninth, and his first for the Mariners.

“You know,” he said, “there’s always going to be pressure. At this level especially, there’s going to be pressure. … Slowing the game down is tough, especially here. It’s something the good players do. I think where I get myself in trouble is trying to do too much. I’m big and strong enough, if I square it up, it’s going to go.

“But I feel like if I work hard, everything will fall into place.”

No matter where that place is. And no matter if it’s already tomorrow there.

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Jul 17, 2010