Mariners Challenge Justin Smoak with Justin Smoak 2.0

A couple of years ago, Logan Morrison was one of the best prospects in baseball. Before the 2009 season, Baseball America rated him the #18 prospect in baseball, and before the 2010 season, he was rated 20th overall. Then as a 22 year old rookie in 2010, he hit .283/.390/.447 in his debut, good for a 129 wRC+. He took walks, he made contact, he hit for some doubles power, and he looked like one of the game’s best young hitters.

And it’s been all downhill since then. In 2011, he annoyed the Marlins enough that they sent him back to the minors for a week to teach him some humility. His wRC+ regressed to 116, which combined with atrocious outfield defense made him a marginally valuable player. The last two years, he’s been even worse, posting below average hitting lines while struggling to play the field, and knee surgery limited both his playing time and his mobility.

So now, here we are heading into 2014, and Morrison has nearly 1,500 plate appearances, a 108 wRC+ over the years he’s spent in the big leagues, and a career WAR of +1.0. He will head to arbitration for the first time as a 26 year old who has been a replacement level player for each of the past three seasons. What once looked like a promising young hitter now looks like more of an opportunity to salvage a former prospect in his post-hype stage.

So that’s exactly what the Mariners are trying to do. By swapping Carter Capps for Morrison, Seattle is betting that the promise of 2010 still holds some predictive value, and that Morrison is going to develop into a late bloomer. It does happen. Raul Ibanez didn’t become a good hitter until he was 29, while Erik Karros and Tino Martinez broke out at 27. There are examples of guys who have been essentially lousy for their first 1,500 plate appearances and then still became good hitters who had solid careers.

Interestingly, though, this entire story almost perfectly describes incumbent first baseman Justin Smoak. They acquired him as part of the Cliff Lee trade in 2010 when he was one of the game’s best first base prospects, and since then, he’s given them 2,000 useless plate appearances. For his career, he has a 95 wRC+ and has been worth -0.1 WAR, and he just turned 27 last week. Before acquiring Logan Morrison, the Mariners had a first baseman who was teetering between the post-hype and bust stages of his development. Now, they have two of them.

Of course, for an AL team, you can afford to double up on players like this, because the designated hitter spot gives teams in the junior circuit an extra spot to carry a bat only player. Only, a few minutes before the Morrison trade became public, it was also reported that the Mariners have signed Corey Hart to a one year contract. Hart, coming off two knee surgeries, should probably be projected as a DH going forward, or at least until he proves that he can play the field without breaking down again. With Hart in the fold, either the team will have to choose between Morrison and Smoak at first base, or one of those three are going to be asked to run around left field.

The Mariners tried the DHs-at-every-spot tactic last year, going for power at the expense of outfield defense with Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez regularly playing the field together. It didn’t work. The defense was atrocious, and the team’s pitching staff predictably took a beating due to a lack of support from their teammates. One would hope that watching 162 games of defensive futility would convince the organization to not go down that path again, but it is possible that either Morrison or Hart are going to be asked to play the outfield. That would diminish the value of the offensive upgrades, and it’s not clear that Morrison can actually hit well enough to offset his atrocious defense in outfield. Realistically, both of the players the Mariners have just acquired should be 1B/DHs only.

So, perhaps this means the Mariners are moving on from Justin Smoak, and simply wanted to make a similar bet on a similar player in a different uniform. Morrison and Smoak have both been awful against left-handed pitching, so a platoon doesn’t work between them. They are duplicative, not complementary.

However, there is also another option. The Mariners have been widely reported to have interest in David Price, who Tampa Bay is shopping. The Rays currently have a void at first base. The Rays were reported to have some interest in Morrison, and if they’re interested in Morrison, perhaps they’re also interested in Smoak. It is at least theoretically possible that Morrison was acquired either to be part of a David Price package, or because they know that they’ll be shipping Smoak to Tampa in a deal that has not yet been completed. This is all speculative, of course, but it wouldn’t be the first time we’d seen a team make one trade in anticipation of making another.

Neither Smoak nor Morrison look like particularly valuable assets, with both being projected for something like +1 WAR over a full season’s worth of at-bats as a first baseman; Morrison would project worse if he was an outfielder. There is some glimmer of potential left with both, but it has mostly faded, and now both look more like under-powered first baseman who don’t have enough offense to make up for the fact that they don’t do anything else to help a team win. The Mariners seem to be stockpiling these guys, and with Hart, they are once again stockpiling bat-only players.

If the Mariners plan to keep Smoak and Morrison, then this looks like it could be a repeat of last year’s decision to punt outfield defense in search of a moderate offensive upgrade. That would make this move questionable, even if Morrison has some potential in and of itself. If Smoak is being used to help facilitate an upgrade elsewhere, then picking up Morrison for a reliever — even an interesting young arm like Carter Capps — might not be a bad little move.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

87 Responses to “Mariners Challenge Justin Smoak with Justin Smoak 2.0”

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  1. Jack Zduriencik says:

    So what do I do next Dave?

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  2. Johnny says:

    Trading a 23 year old high upside guy like Capps for a flyer seems like an overpay to me.

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    • AK7007 says:

      He’s a reliever. Best case, he puts up the same positive WAR as LoMo. Dollars involved make the trade less than Mariners favorable if you believe that they would spend the money wisely elsewhere, but even then, he is only going to make ~3 times the league minimum. It’s hard to screw up when the players involved aren’t paid much and aren’t going to give you more runs then each other. Probably could have just signed a different low-priced 1B option though. Matter of opinion whether or not this is a smart trade.

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      • Professor Ross Eforp says:

        I get that he is a reliever, but Morrison also has a +1.0 WAR over the course of 1500 PA.

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        • BenM says:

          +1.0 *overall* WAR, assuming he’ll DH at least some of the time he’ll have more value than he had in the NL because his defense won’t drag it down.

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        • bleh says:

          “+1.0 *overall* WAR, assuming he’ll DH at least some of the time he’ll have more value than he had in the NL because his defense won’t drag it down.”

          I don’t think it works like that. In the WAR stat I’m pretty sure DHs are penalized heavily for defense as much as a bad 1B. And logically a guy who can play below average 1B is going to be more valuable than a guy who can’t play 1B at all.

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        • jspec6 says:

          It penalizes it as a DH but not as much as bad 1B.

          In only 1479 PA’s LoMo has already a -5.8 dWAR.
          In 8249 PA’s David Ortiz has a -17.7 dWAR.

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        • Pitnick says:

          LoMo’s defensive hit came mostly from the outfield though. The 1B UZR sample isn’t really big enough to mean much; anyone have a sense of how he stacks up there?

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        • Michael says:

          He is very poor defensively at 1B by eye also.

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    • C'mon Man says:

      If your ceiling is late-inning reliever, I have a tough time hanging “high upside” onto him.

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      • chuckb says:

        I have a hard time hanging “high upside” on Logan Morrison.

        Hart could be useful, however.

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        • jspec6 says:

          He just turned 26 and was a top prospect. Recent history shows to not give up on guys like that if the price is right (C.Davis, C. Gomez, Encarnacion, etc.).

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        • Dave S says:

          Often tend to agree with chuckb… but gotta go with jspec6 on this one.

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        • Pitcha says:

          Too hard to judge when guys have their hitting development limited by nagging lower body injuries. It’s like pitching with an injured finger all the time.

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    • Ruben Amaro's Gonads says:

      Johnny, you obviously haven’t seen Carter lobbing the pellet. Capps comes up in 12; funky motion, triple digits, wild slider, rotten command. Righties are bailing, and he’s brand new to lefties. Then 13 comes up; Capps is sitting at _93_, rotten command, slider isn’t enough to make up for the rather startling velocity decline, righties still nervous, lefties get a REAL GOOD LOOK and incinerate the dude. He should have been off the Mariners’ roster to the minors early and stayed there, and Capps being up in Seattle late in the year was a travesty of development since he was a one-man carpet bomb squadron. Maybe, Capps finds his lost velocity. Hmm. May-be, he improves his rotten command; never has, at _any_ point in his career, but guys do change. Carter’s a nice, fun dude, and I’d like for his career to turn back up. It’s a relief to me he’ll be looking to achieve that about as far away from Seattle as he could go and still be in the same continental national territory.

      This is a straight salary dump of LoMo for the Marlins, and they took back whatever the Mariners felt like giving: a birthday cake with a muddy bootprint cleft right down it’s middle to the table setting.

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  3. Joe says:

    What about a Smoak for Gallardo swap? The M’s want SP and the Brew Crew needs a 1B. Could be reclamation project with upsides for both clubs?

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  4. d_i says:

    Call me crazy, but I still believe both of them will prove to be above average players. One thing this ensures though: they basically can’t overpay for Kendryes Morales as many thought they would. When he heard this news, he immediately regretted turning down that qualifying offer. He’s going to have to settle for less somewhere else.

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    • That Guy says:

      I had a tough time understanding Morales turning down the QO way back when it happened. Now, it’s a fireable offense for his agent.

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      • Jay29 says:

        Yeah, now he has virtually no hope of returning to Seattle, which means some team is going to have to fork over a draft pick to get him. I imagine he’ll be snagged on the cheap in early March by a team that has already lost a 1st round pick.

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    • Joel says:

      In effect, the Morrison trade netted the Mariners a draft pick. Good job, Mariners.

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    • Balthazar says:

      I don’t know why anyone is assuming that Morales is history in Seattle; that is premature. For one thing, Hart is being talked about as an OFer. Not my idea of a good idea, but it fits with player utilization here. Keep in mind also that he’s on a one-year deal; this isn’t a long-term patch, yet.

      For another, Logan Morrison has made his living as an outfielder, and there is no reason to see him as an acquisition meant to be anywhere else. He’s bad out there, and I don’t want him for that, but he’s just about certain to be running after flyballs landing behind him in 2014 when he plays. In Seattle. _Neither_ of these guys is ticketed to DH. There is talk that Franklin Gutierrez will be brought back here in Seattle on an one-year-and incentives. Morrison and Gutierrez as a corner outfielder platoon makes a lot of sense, actually; both have ugly splits.

      The person really on an outbound train from these deals is Justin Smoak. He had better patches in mid-2013, has flattened his swing, shows a little more power, has always walked a _ton_ . . . then slumped terribly the last two months of the season. It’s time for him to roam new pastures, really.

      I could easily see Morrison and Gutierrez as a platoon, Hart taking over 1b and seeing some time in the outfield too—and Kendrys Morales coming back on two-and-a-team option to DH, and fill in a little at 1B also. And I’d be quite fine with that. Dave doesn’t like Morales, which isn’t the same as saying he’s a bad idea.

      I’d be perfectly happy to take the pick for Morales, too. Still, Kendrys going on the market for a multi-year is exactly what he should have done, and more power to him. He won’t get as many years of $$ as he’d like, but he didn’t have a great year, just an OK one, and the fact that he didn’t get time at 1B or show much when he did hurt him. Dem’s da breaks . . . .

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  5. Franco says:

    Hey Dave, at least this probably means the Mariners aren’t going to sign Cruz.

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  6. JS7 says:

    Jon Morosi twitter:

    Key development: Mariners now unlikely to sign Shin-Soo Choo as a result of Corey Hart and Logan Morrison acquisitions.

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  7. schlomsd says:

    I was always confused on why Smoak was such a highly regarded prospect while coming up through the minors. What in this line screams out superstar?

    I understand that stats aren’t everything but to be a major league 1B you need to mash and Smoak never did in the minors. He was good in Double A in 2009 but I don’t think that screams out All Star 1B to anyone. He doesn’t even have the “age relative to level” thing that helps out prospects.

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    • Alec says:

      He was supposed to be the best defensive 1B in baseball, which isn’t high praise, but sapped a lot of his value when he turned out to be barely average

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    • 68FC says:

      His swing and profile reminded a lot of people of Mark Teixeria. Throw in that he’s a switch hitter and great with the glove and the label stuck.

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    • Pat G says:

      Was an excellent college hitter when he was drafted. Good swing mechanics from both sides of the plate and smooth actions at first. 68FC is right, in that he was drafted by the team that had teixeira and he became the quick and easy comp.

      He showed excellent plate discipline (as he was expected to do being an advanced college draftee). The big red flag should’ve been when he didn’t hit a lick in the PCL in 2009, a league that historically has played EXTREMELY hitter friendly.

      People expected power to develop, due to a good approach most likely, that never did. And he was supposed to deliver positive value with the glove. Essentially people expected him to do what Goldschmidt has done.


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      • That Guy says:

        Agreed and well said.

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      • Tom says:

        And then Texas traded him

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      • Jamie says:

        You have to wonder if maybe going to Seattle stunted his growth as a player. The Mariners don’t seem to be very good at the whole player development thing (see: Ackley, Zunino, etc.).

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        • joser says:

          Zunino had less than a third of a season in the majors (while catching almost full-time) and barely a full year in pro ball. Which could be damning in itself with regard to development, but that’s very little data to hang a conclusion on. I have no faith he’ll be able to avoid the Ackley path either, but let’s wait for something like an actual body of work before we stick a fork in him.

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      • Balthazar says:

        Agreed with all, Pat G, though I’ll re-phrase it a bit. Smoak’s plate discipline was, and has remained, excellent. That put a floor under expectations of his development as a hitter. His pitch recognition always seemed good too, projecting to major league ability. Furthermore, while opinions of Smoak’s bat speed varied, they varied from good enough to superior. There was every reason to project him to hit, and plenty of reason to support the idea that he’d hit for power.

        . . . Except for his swing plane. Justin had that lefthander’s golf swing. It was long and loopy enough that, ooops, he simply could NOT catch up to major league fastballs with it. Or ever better ones in the minors, that should have been seen, but every one was hoping for ‘adjustments.’ As with many guys like this, it isn’t until her really faces the best of the best in his sport that you see how his ‘design flaws’ play. And Justin Smoak simply could not hit major leage velocity with his swing, from either side of the plate.

        It has taken Justin several years to flatten his swing out a bit so that he gets a better plane through the strike zone. That did seem to be working for him from the left side when he came back up in 2013. He still wasn’t making contact from the right side with his altered swing, but that may come. And there’s the rub: Smoak has improved, but his real adjustments are only just phasing in. They may not be enough for him to be more than a marginal major league player even so, which he was for part of 2013. He may have a bit of a break out year; or two. If Casey Kotchman and James Loney can, there’s no reason to think Smoak can’t since in many respects he’s been a better batter than either, if not exactly a better hitter. I don’t see Smoak as in any way a star, any where, any time. But he could entirely possibly put up a couple of 2+ win seasons, especially if he lands in a short park not at sea level. And if so, everybody will say, “Jeez, they leat ANOTHER one get away.” Which wouldn’t be true, Justin has had all the PT this org can afford him. DJ Peterson will be here very, very soon, and is in every respect a very, very much better hitter. We don’t need to wait on Smoak to catch fire anymore. I hope he goes in a package for an outfielder, or quality starting pitcher, while Corey Hart stands in as receiver over at 1B for the year coming.

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  8. Mike Green says:

    FWIW, Morrison’s BBRef age comps are surprisingly good. Five players with good careers and four flame-outs. Most of the players with good careers did have more defensive ability than Morrison. I’d say that he’s got maybe a 30-40% chance of being a valuable asset.

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  9. Kendrys Morales says:

    I really should’ve accepted that qualifying offer.

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  10. harmony55 says:

    The lead mentions that Logan Morrison was Baseball America’s No. 18 prospect in 2009 and No. 20 prospect in 2010 but the piece fails to mention that Justin Smoak was BA’s No. 23 and No. 13 prospect in those same years.

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  11. Alec says:

    Of course the Rays would target Smoak and Morrison. They have their magic 1B dust.

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  12. rzt101 says:

    I am guessing Montero is out of sight/out of mind right now.

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  13. jdbolick says:

    “Duplicative,” lol. Someone has been reading my comments.

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  14. That Guy says:

    Leaving Miami was the best thing to happen to Morrison. I won’t call this shot just yet, but he’s bound to bounce back after the last two years with Loria.

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  15. triple_r says:

    With Hart in the fold, either the team will have to choose between Morrison and Smoak at first base, or one of those three are going to be asked to run around left field.

    I believe that should be “is”, not “are”.

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  16. Jay Ess says:

    Tampa Bay does well reviving former prospect first basemen–see Casey Kotchman and James Loney. If I were Smoak, I’d want to go down there.

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    • GoodasGoldy says:

      I bet Beane is smelling a cheap gamble right now with Smoak. A Smoak/Frieman platoon could be productive and Moss could settles into full-time DH and backup OF/1B spots. Beane can probably get Smoak right now for the worst of their 3 catchers.

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    • exxrox says:

      And Carlos Pena

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  17. Cappy says:

    Morrison can’t play outfield, he can barely move.

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    • Frank says:

      The entire Mariner outfield couldn’t move at times in 2013. Jack Z likes DHs at most every position.

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      • John C says:

        You can get away with it if the DH’s can actually hit. The Tigers made it all the way to the LCS last year with a DH playing third and another DH playing at first.

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        • BookBook says:

          Might be more important that the pitchers could pitch. Detroit managed a team ERA+ of 117 in front of that defense! (8.8 K/9 team wide)

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  18. pft says:

    Morrision at least showed he could hit MLB pitching for 1 yr, and he has dealt with knee issues the past 2 years

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  19. Z..... says:

    When LoMo has had his legs under him, we saw the same things he did in 2010 when he first came up. Last year, he was really good in June and August, and still had a high OBP in July. He started falling off when Marcell Ozuna went down and the lineup became atrocious again. Still, when he had a couple of days off, he seemed to come back and produce, making me think that I’m right about him needing his legs underneath him. He didnt have a Spring Training last year. He doesnt strike out that much and he gets on base with a really good opposite field approach. Before his injuries, he was actually better against LHPs than RHPs, as he was in the minor leagues as well. Now he is healthy. I believe that LoMo has a chance to turn it around b/c I’ve seen some really good signs from him. All I can say is that he gives everything out there on the field. He goes all out, which is how he got hurt running into walls in the OF. LoMo is a true gamer, which is something I want on my team. He has also always been a clubhouse leader from the time he was in the low minor leagues. Getting away from Loria should definitely help him. At $1.7 million with 3 years of control, I dont see any reason not to take a shot at his upside

    I dont like the idea of giving up on a 26 year old like LoMo to spend money on a 33 year old who the Marlins control for 1 less year, who I dont consider to be as good, in Garret Jones. They also said that since they are already going with Furcal at 2b, they couldnt risk missing time on the right side of the infield. My question is…why go with Furcal at $3 million then if that is your actual reasoning? Furcal is 36 years old, missed all of 2013, and missed a substantial amount of time in his 3 prior seasons with serious back injuries, hamstring issues, and shoulder problems, and o ya, he is coming off Tommy John surgery and didnt play that well in his last action…

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    • Z..... says:

      I also wonder if it would be possible to find any stats to see how many outs LoMo made since 2011 in which he moved a runner up or drove one in…I’d bet its a pretty good amount

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  20. Chris says:

    I figured Lomo and Smoak would just platoon each other.

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  21. Joebrady says:

    “The Mariners tried the DHs-at-every-spot tactic last year, going for power at the expense of outfield defense with Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez regularly playing the field together. It didn’t work. The defense was atrocious,”

    Er, Dave, You forgot that this is why JZ signed Jason Bay as a defensive replacement.

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  22. The Chris Davis says:

    I watched Smoak in Texas and he’s got what it takes. Smoak just needs a team worth rallying behind. The Mariners have been awful at spending money. Smoak is one of the best defensive first baseman in the league and isn’t hitting much worse than the average player at his age. He’ll go to Tampa and hit .280+

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