The Seattle Mariners have one of the best prospects in baseball in catcher Mike Zunino at Triple-A. Their major league backstop, Jesus Montero, is more a designated hitter, first baseman, or an end table, so it makes sense to move him. The only thing that is preventing the Mariners from sorting out the is their current first baseman, a 26-year-old former first-round draft pick with career averages of .223/.306/.370. The season is young, and Justin Smoak may yet turn his season and his career around, may yet show the ability that had him selected with the 11th overall pick of the 2008 draft, but 566 games into his professional career the question must be asked: how long does a player who fails to meet expectations at baseball's key offensive position get to prove himself before he runs out of chances?
There have always been athletic, defensively adroit first basemen, but first base has also been the home of burly sluggers whose main contribution in the field has been to provide a stationary target for the other infielders. Because a team can survive getting just that minimal defensive contribution at first, the gateway has always been a place to prioritize offense. For that reason, untried players at first base are generally on a shorter leash than at any other position.
Just to give one example, in the first years of this century, the Royals had a first base prospect named Ken Harvey. Harvey was a defensive zero, but his bat looked like something special. He won an NCAA Division I batting title in college, then hit .397 in 56 games his first season after turning pro. In 2001, he hit .350/.398/.532 at two levels. His .277/.342/.465 production at Triple-A Omaha in 2002 was less inspiring, but Harvey was still a well-regarded prospect, the seventh-best in the Royals organization in 2002 and 2003 according to Baseball America. The Royals gave him the first-base job in 2003, and he hit what those Triple-A numbers suggested -- .266/.313/.408 (84 OPS+). Even the Royals couldn't live with that kind of production at first base, especially from a guy whose glove audibly clanked when the ball hit it, but still, you had all that good minor-league production, so they gave Harvey another shot in 2004. He was a little better, hitting .287/.338/.421, but that was still really light production given the average major-league first baseman hit .274/.356/.469 that year.
Chances Harvey received after that: basically zero. The Royals gave him a few games in early 2005, then he hit the disabled list with a bad back and never played in the majors again. Injuries were a part of that, but the combination of bad defense and weak hitting meant that Harvey was operating under a very heavy burden before he could even get a look. Consider Casey Kotchman, who is rated a good glove at first. Kotchman had done just enough hitting in the major leagues (in 2007 and 2011) to keep hope alive that he might be worth playing, but after hitting .229/.280/.333 for the Indians last year he was in the depressing position of taking a job with the Marlins, baseball's version of "Last gas before exit."
There's also Matt LaPorta, the seventh-overall pick in the 2007 draft. The main prospect received by the Indians in the CC Sabathia trade, LaPorta has hit .288/.379/.538 in the minors, but after over 200 games of hitting .234/.302/.386 in the majors, the Indians seem to have given up on him. He's presently recovering from an injury, but it would be surprising if he gets another extended trial.
What applied to Harvey, Kotchman, and LaPorta also should apply to Smoak. At 26, he's no longer all that young in baseball terms, and we've yet to see anything like production from him -- and that includes in the minors, where he hit .279/.400/.449 in 194 games. Yes, the on-base percentage is pretty, but you adjust that for the difficulty level of the major leagues and you find that the batting average disappears and that real pitchers won't treat a non-power bat with anything like that degree of deference. A switch-hitter, Smoak hasn't hit left-handers adequately, hasn't hit right-handers at all, hasn't hit at home, hasn't hit on the road. He showed glimpses of pop at Safeco in 2011, slugging .439 in a difficult environment, but he was inexplicably miserable everywhere else. It is not unfair to say that there is nothing that Smoak has done well.
Asked about Smoak in the past, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has made the requisite excuses involving injuries and off-the-field distractions. However legitimate these reasons, at some point a hitter has to, y'know, hit, especially when there is a better prospect bottled up in the minors. In the post-strike era, just one first baseman has had worse raw batting stats than Smoak (1,000 PA minimum), Robert Fick, who at least had versatility in his favor (he also caught and played the outfield). Remember Randall Simon? Smoak hasn't hit as well as he did. Steve Cox? Ditto. Travis Lee, another big first-round disappointment? Better than Smoak. Ross Gload? Better. Doug Mientkiewicz, the rare glove-first first baseman? Much better.
There are reasons to believe that Smoak might not get better without some major overhaul of his approach. His batting average on balls in play has been terribly low (.257 career) for his entire career, suggesting that something other than luck is at work. In both 2011 and 2012, his line-drive rate was in the bottom third of qualified major leaguers. Basically, as a hitter, Smoak is like the "before" picture in the old Charles Atlas ads.
Zduriencik traded Cliff Lee to get Smoak, so it makes sense that he'd give him the last full measure of devotion before making a change -- calling Smoak a failure would be tantamount to admitting that he screwed up. Heck, moving Montero to make room for Zunino would be that, too. Still, one would think that benching Smoak/posting the team's first winning record since 2009, and maybe even winning a postseason spot might trump eating crow on one deal, however prominent.
There is no rush in promoting Zunino -- to date he has only had 108 plate appearances above Low-A, so there is time for him to show he is indeed ready for the majors. However, there might not be time for the Mariners, who are 7-10 and have demonstrated repeatedly in recent seasons that even if they can construct a league-average pitching staff, they can't put together an above-average offense to support it. Given his age, Smoak probably is what he is. It's time to say that that isn't enough and let some other team sort out whatever it was that got lost in the transition between the University of South Carolina and the pros.