Originally written on NorthWest Sports Beat  |  Last updated 11/18/14
Help on the way? Seattle Mariners 1B Justin Smoak, is being activated from the DL today to join the team for Tuesday’s game in California against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Smoak is hitting .240 this year in 46 games which would be the highest average of his short career.  However, his power numbers have been significantly down, only hitting a homerun every 51.33 at bats, compared to last year’s 25.42. Youth movement With the Mariners in the middle of a youth movement, Smoak is one of the elder statesmen in the new wave of Seattle’s offensive talent. Second baseman Dustin Ackley, 25, was sent back down to AAA Tacoma along with C Jesus Montero, 23, after both starting the year with the Mariners. Since then, 2B Nick Franklin, 22, and C Mike Zunino, 22, have been brought up, both finding success at the major league level. With 3B Kyle Seager, 25, having been one of the team’s few constant bright spots and CF Michael Saunders, 26, showing inconsistent flashes, the Mariners seem to have hit on, at best, only 3 of 6. At the plate, a .500 average is fantastic, however, when significant investment is made into compiling youth and talent, 3/6 (or even 2/5 if you just go with Franklin and Seager) has many wondering, what went wrong? Out since May 30 with a strained oblique muscle, Smoak could end up defining the success of GM Jack Zduriencik’s master plan. Smoak was acquired from the Texas Rangers in a 2010 trade for Cliff Lee (pitchers Blake Beavan and Mark Lowe were also exchanged in the deal, as well as the Mariners adding in two more AA players and $2 million in cash). Since the trade, Smoak has had 1,177 at bats as a Mariner and has not lived up to expectations. He always seems to show just enough to stick around, but as a highly touted prospect playing a position that is expected to offer offensive numbers, he has failed miserably.  However, I think that is about to change. An about face for Smoak? Justin Smoak has been activated from the DL. (Photo: Sports Illustrated) The common analysis from Mariner’s insiders is that Smoak’s problems are more in-between the ears, rather than due to a lack of talent. The ability and aptitude are there, but his limitations are brought about by his own emotional walls. They say misery loves company, and unfortunately for Smoak, I believe this is true. Smoak ended 2012 on fire, hitting .341 in September/October combined over 88 at bats, and a HR every 17.6 at bats. Going into 2013, this offered a lot of hope, especially when combined with the expectations of Ackley and Montero. However, once this season started and the struggles began, Smoak’s promise turned into disappointment.  Well, I’m here to tell you, look for a turnaround the rest of the season. After analyzing Smoak’s trends, it has become obvious to me that the better the young players around him do, the better he does. While showing the ability to come up clutch in a specific at bat is well within his repertoire, having the pressure of a franchise’s expectations can make him wilt. This lack of success is not about his emotional maturity as much as it is about the added pressure he puts upon himself. When Ackley and Montero struggled, Smoak did too, trying to produce not only to validate his place, but their place as well. All three youngsters were often talked about in the same conversations. The more they failed, the more Smoak tried to do and subsequently, the more he failed. Tacoma could do wonders for all three Once Ackley and Montero were sent down, Smoak has spent most of the time out with the strained oblique. Since then, the arrival of Franklin and more recently, Zunino, talk has shifted away from old prospects and now focuses on the new prospects. Franklin is batting .299 since being called up and has as many HR (3) in 67ab as Smoak has had all year (154 ab). With pressure off his bat, Smoak can focus on 1st. (Photo: Google) While in a much smaller sample size, Zunino has shown explosion, excitement and a defensive prowess that Montero never had. Even without Smoak, the future for the Mariners is here…now, and it’s looking brighter than it has in years. And that is exactly why Smoak will turn it around. No longer is he being called upon to carry the franchise’s expectations on his shoulders. The conversation is no longer about him, Ackley and Montero. Heck, Smoak isn’t even in the conversation anymore. Ackley has tore up AAA, batting .411 in 73ab, Montero will be given multiple chances after his knee heals due to his pedigree and age, and with the success of Franklin and Seager, combined with the expectations of Zunino, the pressure is completely off Smoak. Expectations Because of that, I fully expect Smoak will, for the first time since September/October 2012, begin to live up to his expectations. He no longer has to validate the team’s ‘master plan’. With so many people having already given up on him, he no longer even needs to validate the ‘big trade’. All he has to do is validate his place at first base… stake his claim and prove he deserves to be there, and that is well within his ability. Over the last 22 games, he has had 1 at bat. In his time out with the injury, he has had plenty of opportunity to fix the issues between the ears. With Franklin’s success, it has removed most of the pressure. All that is left is for Smoak to put the burden of his own career on his shoulders and show himself that he deserves to be here. From there, success will breed even more success. Ackley will soon be making his way back up to the Mariners and likely playing most of his time in the outfield. The conversation will no longer be about Smoak and that is why he will succeed.  For the first time since being called up to the majors…for the first time since the trade…there is no pressure. Because of that, for the first extended amount of time in his career, Smoak will show why he belongs. CLICK HERE CHECK OUT THE SEATTLE MARINERS CLUBHOUSE AT NWSB!
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