Smoak Out?

It might be shape up or ship out time for Seattle first baseman Justin Smoak. Ever since his high-profile arrival from Texas, Smoak has failed to live up to expectations. His manager, Eric Wedge, makes it sound as if the organization is nearing their wits’ end and may make a move:

We’ve been patient, they’ve been addressed, and we’ve come at them in different ways and different fashions. But ultimately, they’re grown men out there and either they’ve got to get it done or they won’t be here.”

Delve into Smoak’s numbers and the picture doesn’t get any rosier. He’s already accrued over 1200 major league plate appearances that we can use to judge him against history, and his numbers don’t suggest a hopeful future.

Of course, as with any Seattle player, his home/road splits come to mind first. Smoak has played 150 games at home and 152 games away. In that near-full-season away from home and in friendlier confines, Smoak has hit .233/.300/.389 for an 89 wRC+. That’s not acceptable for a first baseman. It’s better than his .206/.305/.349 (80 wRC+) at home, but it’s still not first baseman material.

His overall line in his first 1214 PAs — .220/.302/.370 — has been 15% worse than league-average park-adjusted offense. He’s only 25, but even if you stack him up against other first basemen that were younger than 25 and put up 1000+ plate appearances, he doesn’t look good. In fact, Dan Meyer was the only first baseman to fare worse to begin his career since free agency began in 1974. Sure, with Smoak’s fielding added in, he’s been demonstrably better than Meyer, who was recently labeled the third-worst regular of all time.

That’s not very exciting. Certainly not as exciting as the #13 prospect in the nation, which was where Smoak found himself on the Baseball America list after the 2009 season.

Surely we can find some solace in the fact that he was even given that many plate appearances. Surely there are other names that started almost as poorly and went on to have good careers. Surely?

Just behind him on the list (86 wRC+) was Willie Upshaw, who managed almost 16 wins for the Blue Jays in the mid 1980s, and Travis Lee (91 wRC+), who actually seems like a decent comp. Lee was known for his patience and defense, and after his poor start, he rallied to accrue… nine wins bouncing around between the Phillies, Rays and Yankees. In between the two sits Chris Davis (90 wRC+), who is a poor comp — he has power, poor discipline and no glove — but has turned in a decent season for the Orioles so far this year (106 wRC+). Even so, without any patience or defense, Chris Davis might be headed to the same short-ish career that befell the other first baseman that started almost as poorly as Smoak has. Tino Martinez is probably the best bat at first base that ever started his career with as many plate appearances featuring worse-than-league-average production.

If you open up the search criteria and include other positions, you get some interesting names that started poorly and went on to long careers. Torii Hunter, Kirby Puckett and All-Star MVP Melky Cabrera all started out with 85 wRC+ numbers or worse over their first 1000 plate appearances, and they ended up being pretty good. But they had the benefit of playing in the outfield, where their gloves could carry their bats through some adjustment pains. Defense-first first basemen don’t get the starter’s share of playing time if they’re having trouble being league average with the bat.

Has Smoak proven that he can’t be a major league first baseman yet? Maybe not, but it’s close. And that’s what his team is trying to communicate through their manager. It’s time for Smoak to be better, or it’s time for Smoak to be out.




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61 Responses to “Smoak Out?”

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  1. Brian McGee says:

    It’s been s.u.o.s.o. time for Smoak for a while now. I believe we got past the Smoak-a-motive promo night, so the primary reason for keeping him around at the major league level is arguably gone. It’s like Chris Davis is probably his ceiling at this point. The poor bastard…if only we’d taken Montero for the Lee rental when we had the chance (presuming we really did have that chance), we could’ve avoided the Smoak debacle and maybe even turned Pineda into something other than a fatass, light-hitting career DH with delusions of catching grandeur.

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    • ppabich says:

      Brian “Pessimist” McGee

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      • yosoyfiesta says:

        Jesus Montero is a ‘light-hitting’ DH? By the time he’s 26, he will have had at the very least one 30 HR season under his belt, and then the real fun will begin. Let him catch if he hits better as a catcher, any effective bat in their line-up should be welcome. Unless you think Olivo and Jaso are such strong catchers that they absolutely must play.

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      • Baltar says:

        There’s a difference between pessimism and realism. Realism looks the same as pessimism to most people because most people are cock-eyed optimists.

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      • ppabich says:

        So it’s not pessimism when someone comes to a conclusion about a player after only 300 PAs? That’s realism?

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    • Ronin says:

      Dude you are talking about Edgar Martinez 2.0 and he can catch! I’m surprised they didnt give up King Felix for him.

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      • Matt says:

        FELIX IS OURS AND YOU CAN’T HAVE HIM!! (Trademark Lookoutlanding.com)

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      • Shawn says:

        “I’m not in the mood to trade Felix” – Jack Z

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      • Brian McGee says:

        When I was seventeen, I drank some very good beer
        I drank some very good beer I purchased with a fake ID
        My name was Brian McGee
        I stayed up listening to Queen
        When I was seventeen

        In this case pessimism is just a function of being born into Mariner fan-dom.And the Z-man failing to swindle Cashman (if rumor is to be believed) out of Montero for the Lee rental instead of doing the deal with Texas and as a result, ultimately watching that opportunity go up in a puff of Smoak instead. Then Z-man twists the knife and trades my crush Pineda for the aforementioned likely RH DH/1B, which despite the ramblings of the front office, seems to be their long term idea for him too since they took an arguably near-pro-ready Zunino this year, a guy who by most accounts should be a viable ML catcher now and in the future.

        I don’t think Montero is garbage by any means, but nor did I think that was anywhere near the best we could do for Pineda, and to have given Campos and only gotten the FRIGGING TURD Noesi as a throw-in is embarrassing, similar to being an M’s fan in general. I can’t think of Smoak without reliving the whole disaster. I want him to succeed so badly, but now it’s so painful and remote (and a waste of time) that we might as well ship him to the NL for 2 cents on the dollar and watch him blow up already. You might be down on Montero too if you knew that your team’s FO will continually assess his value based on his original prospect hype for the next 6 years regardless of his offensive output, including tailoring the marketing campaign around his magnificent power stroke (see this year’s radio spots, in re: both Smoak and Montero).

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    • The Lee deal to Texas brought us other things, too. Though Blake Beavan isn’t anybody interesting, we did flip Josh Lueke for John Jaso who has been very productive. Between Beavan and Jaso alone, I think you can justify the deal to the Rangers, especially since we still got Montero in another trade. Though I suppose it depends on how you feel about Beaven and Jaso vs. Montero and McAllister.

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      • Tom says:

        Montero + Adams (or someone else)
        Smoak + Leuke (or Jaso if you prefer) + Beaven

        I like how folks are always quick to bring in the secondary parts of the Smoak deal and assume there would have been none in the potential Montero deal for Lee.

        Also you left out that the later Montero deal also cost you Campos (and netted Hector Noesi on his place)… so how one feels about Campos is also a consideration – he’s still a lottey ticket, but not a worthless one.

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  2. gobears says:

    Such a sad story: I’m an A’s fan so seeing Seattle fail usually makes me smile, but everyone wants prospects to work out. His ceiling is (was?) so high, but at some point you have to move toward it. I wonder if his father’s passing in early 2011 was too much of a psychological burden. Or maybe the psychological burden of being the next great hope for the franchise has been too much for him: his homer-heavy stats could imply that he has taken to heart Mickey Mantle’s words about swinging for the fences, “Every time.” If others have more detailed observations about what the problems could be, I’d be very interested in hearing any diagnoses.

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  3. Angelsjunky says:

    Justin Smoak…Daric Barton…Austin Kearns…Jeremy Hermida…Ben Grieve. Hmm…what do these players all have in common? I’ll tell you: they’re all former sabermetric darlings that failed to live up to expectations.

    Now we could find an equally long, if not longer, list of “toolsy darlings”–Pie, Patterson, etc–that failed to live up to the hype, but let’s be clear that being a sabermetric wunderkind does not necessarily lead to major league success.

    I remember back in the late 90s the Yankees had two elite middle infield prospects, one of whom was a big name prospect that the traditional community loved and the other whom the sabermetric community loved. The first prospect is Alfonso Soriano who, despite probably being overrated at his peak, has produced 37.3 WAR and is still playing, with a 2.1 WAR this year. The other player produced a 9.1 WAR in the majors and has been out of the majors for five years, currently in a Mexican league. The second player? D’Angelo Jimenez. D’Angelo who? Exactly (and it isn’t the singer of “Brown Sugar”).

    There are numerous cases where two prospects come up, one more sabermetric than the other, and there is no clear pattern which of the two succeeds. I personally think it has more to do with psychological factors, but that can’t be described by statistics (unless you’re BF Skinner).

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    • mcbrown says:

      I don’t think players typically get top ranks in BA by being sabermetric darlings…

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    • ppabich says:

      I don’t think it will be a shock to tell you this, but smart baseball has become a blend of sabermetrics and scouting. Guys being on one spectrum or the other usually get that way because of major holes in their game. Tools guys who can’t hit, but look good doing it are the bane of the scouts existence, and guy putting up monster stats in meaningless Cal league games are the bane of the saber guys existence.

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      • ppabich says:

        I should change the last part of that comment to “Patient hitters without any power.”

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      • Angelsjunky says:

        Yes, agreed. What I find most interesting is that “X factor” that turns a mediocre talent into a quality major leaguer or an average talent into a star, or is the difference between one elite talent actualizing his potential and another flaming out. Maybe it is a blend of luck, confidence, and other psychological factors. Maybe it is karma, fate, soul power…who knows.

        As an Angels fan I’ve got high hopes for Kole Calhoun, who was written off as a mediocre talent with no above average tools but has consistently performed in the minors and drew attention in Spring Training. He just has that swagger and feel of a major leaguer, and looks like he’ll be more than the sum of his parts.

        I’m not saying that Kole will be a star – I’m more hopeful of borderline star status, maybe .290/.850 in the majors, a 4 WAR corner outfielder. Even if he hits .270/.800 as a solid platoon outfielder that would be much better than most thought he would be. It remains to be seen how he does; I’m just using him as an example of a player with modest talents that, I feel, will succeed in the major leagues because he has that “X factor.”

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    • Dean Travers says:

      The Jimenez critique is unfair–he was never the same after a car accident in which he fractured a vertebrae when he was 22; he was nearly paralyzed.

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    • eckmuhl says:

      “Justin Smoak…Daric Barton…Austin Kearns…Jeremy Hermida…Ben Grieve. Hmm…what do these players all have in common?”

      How about, they were all 1st round draft picks. I don’t see how that makes them sabermetric darlings. I think you are making the mistake of saying that young players who display “old player skills” are all sabermetric favorites. But you don’t become a #1 pick without the consensus being that you are a future ML player. Yes, the sabermetric community may have embraced these players while in the minors because of their plate discipline, power, etc. But it isn’t like they were anything close to being alone in that regard.

      To me a “sabermetric darling”, if there is such a thing, is a player who has received little fanfare from scouts and/or from the organization in which they play. Such a player is believed to be a viable future ML player by many saber fans, but must be “freed” in order to do so. These guys don’t fit that bill.

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      • Angelsjunky says:

        Fair enough – I like your definition of sabermetric darling better. Perhaps we could call it the Roberto Petagine Award?

        What you point out rightly is that these players were highly regarded by everyone. I don’t think this takes away from my point(s), however, namely that the sabermetric seal of approval isn’t protection from flaming out, perhaps no more or less than the scouting seal of approval. What I feel the baseball community needs to do is study the reasons players succeed or don’t succeed beyond their scouting report, why a former super-prospect like Corey Patterson ends up with a .252/.290/.400 batting line in 1230 major league games (Patterson hasn’t given up yet, btw – he’s playing in AAA for the Brewers), while a Ben Zobrist comes out of nowhere and becomes a latter-day Craig Biggio.

        My point being, we can’t simply say Patterson sucked “because he never developed plate discipline.” Go tell that to Alfonso Soriano or Vlad Guerrero or, on the other side of the spectrum, Daric Barton or Justin Smoak.

        So here’s the bottom line, imo: plate discipline, power, and all the other skills, tools and talents are important, but they aren’t the deciding factor on whether a player fulfills his potential and/or succeeds at the big league level. The question, then, is what is?

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    • formerstarQB16 says:

      Worst. Point. Ever.

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    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      As a Nationals fan, let me tell you: I will never forget D’Angelo Jimenez.

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    • Baltar says:

      Boy, are you confused. Sabermetric is not a quality of players, but of statistics. It is unfortunate that the term “sabermetric” was chosen instead of “better” for better statistics.
      No statistician would ever claim that his projections for a given player are a guarantee. They are rough guesses, better than purely subjective guesses or guesses based on bad or traditional statistics.
      There are many reasons why 2 players with similar projections turn out differently, with chance high among them.

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    • dirtbag says:

      Ben Grieve was a sabermetric darling? He must have inherited that from his mother.

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  4. jcxy says:

    kudos to the rangers for selling high on him (with an assist to Klaw’s hype). he was a 22 year old posting sub .150 ISOs in the PCL at age 23. looking back on this…kind of a red flag if you’re trying to project him as an (A-) prospect.

    i feel like travis lee or rico brogna are interesting comps. if he gets out of safeco, stops hitting right-handed, and concentrates on his D…he can probably add value to non-playoff team.

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    • Mario Mendoza of commenters says:

      ALL TRUE.

      (but make up your mind, was he 22 or 23?)

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    • ppabich says:

      Wait, you think the Mariners make decisions based of the hype from ESPN writers?

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      • jcxy says:

        surely not, as klaw (or a 20 second google search) would have know of the lueke situation prior to the deal. that kind of due diligence would make countrywide executives blush.

        in any case, by citing klaw i simply mean that the hype surrounding smoak was very much at its peak when he was dealt, thanks in no small part to the scouting world’s projections of him–of which i’m using klaw as a good barometer of the Ms feelings. i see this as warranted, of course, because the Ms liked smoak more than the other offers they had for lee.

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  5. Mario Mendoza of commenters says:

    The real story here is the article you quoted, and how it shows what a terrible manager Wedge is for young players. He clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing or how to encourage them. Here’s my favorite:

    “You know, what’s most frustrating about it is these guys had it there for a little while. And they showed you what they’re capable of doing, and more importantly they proved to themselves what they had to do to be successful. So unless they’re just not paying attention or just dumb, they should be able to find a way to get back to it and ultimately be more consistent.”

    So…… what exactly do they need to do, Wedge? Can you tell us? WHO is dumb here?

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  6. Mario Mendoza of commenters says:

    This is the second big-trade top-prospect 1B that Wedge has washed out (LaPorta.) Do these two 1B lack talent, or did he fail to develop them?

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    • formerstarQB16 says:

      There’s something to this. LaPorta, Ackley, Smoak, Montero. What do they all have in common? All top 15 prospects. All got worse the more they played for Eric Wedge.

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  7. walt526 says:

    Possible comp might be JT Snow?

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  8. Mike says:

    Casey Kotchman?

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  9. Smoak isn’t playing that poorly away from Safeco. He has a a 96 wRC+ away, which is higher than the league average of 92. The truth is that Safeco is killing almost all of the Mariners. I explain how bad it is at : http://average-casey.blogspot.com/2012/07/safeco-field-is-mariners-problem.html

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    • Tim_the_Beaver says:

      I’ve wondered if being a rookie in a tough hitting park makes it difficult to develop in the Majors. My anecdotal experience with this has been watching A’s hitting prospects who look decent/good in the minors suck terribly in the majors. Conversely, it seems an abnormal amount of pitching prospects pan out in Oakland.
      My hypothesis is that for a tough hitting park, the young batter is constantly feeling pressure to adjust, never allowing him to develop comfort at the plate.
      All very handwavy- I realize.

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      • Choo says:

        Really? Because my anecdotal experience with the “Coliseum” A’s has been watching them crank out some of the best young hitters in the game: Reggie Jackson, Rick Monday, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Dwayne Murphy, Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Ben Grieve, Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Nick Swisher, Jemile Weeks, plus whoever I missed. The Coliseum is not a hitter’s park, but that hasn’t prevented the A’s from developing good bats.

        As for the M’s, I don’t blame Safeco. They are inferior wherever they play. Coaching and player development is tough to quantify, but at some point you have to look that direction and give credit or blame when it’s due.

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      • Tim_the_Beaver says:

        Hm. I could nitpick your list a bit, but point taken.

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      • Choo says:

        Sorry for coming off a bit snarky. The M’s are making me a bitter fan. I guess my point was the young version of any hitter on that list would be a veritable god of offense in Safeco right now. Hell, I would take Luis Polonia in a heartbeat.

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  10. Choo says:

    Is there a way to look up foul ball % for batters? I would like to know how Smoak compares to the rest of the league in that category. He gets the barrel through the zone with force, but the move leading up to that moment is slow and he appears to lack the requisite amount of quick-twitch muscle fibers in his hands, wrists and forearms (or brain) to make adjustments on the ball once his swing is underway.

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  11. James Shue says:

    I love it when poeple talk about Jesus Montero like he can hit.

    He hits in two circumstnaces. One, last year when heplayed his home games at Yankee stadium. And two, this year against lefties. Any toher time he is useless, and these fantasy experts keep overrating him. Salvador Perez has more homeruns in two weeks than Montero has the past two months. Awful. If he were any good, the Yankees wouldnt have traded him.

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    • Jason B says:

      “If he were any good, the Yankees wouldnt have traded him.”

      Good point. The Yankees categorically have never, ever traded away any good players. Ever. Never ever.

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    • ppabich says:

      300 PAs for a 22 year old, and you’re writing him off? Get real.

      Isn’t a fangraphs reader supposed to be better than analysis like, “Salvador Perez has more homeruns in two weeks than Montero has the past two months. Awful.”

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    • Hich says:

      “If he were any good the Yankees wouldnt have traded him”

      An especially unconvincing remark when posted in a discussion about a Yankees-Mariners trade. Does it mean I’m old if I remember Jay Buhner in pinstripes?

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  12. Murph says:

    Chris Davis has no glove? Are you freaking kidding me? He’s a very good fielding first baseman.

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  13. Steve says:

    Are you talking about Chris Davis, the lights out closer?

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  14. Dan says:

    Smoak also injured his wrist. Which from my experience, takes over a year to get back to 100% strength. He’s been wearing a wrist brace on and off this year, which tells me it’s still bothering him. He can’t swing 100% with his wrist still nagging him, which means he can’t catch up to most fastballs (which has been his problem) or he cheats and look silly on off speed pitches.

    And no I’m not saying he is an all-star to be, but I strongly believe he’ll be much better next year. To that end, It would be interesting to see some analysis on hitter performance relative to time since injury being broken out by reason for being on the DL.

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  15. Calvin says:

    You take a FB hitter, put him in a big pitcher’s park (and a division with 2 other big pitcher’s parks), give him a power-sapping injury, and it’s hardly a shock that his ISO and BABIP are way down leading him to suck His skillset just doesn’t play without the power. His ISO and BABIP were actually *better* in 2011, playing full-time for SEA, than they were in his split TEX-SEA season in 2010 (SSS issues aside).. and he was battling a thumb injury for a few months in 2011 as well.

    It’s possible that this is closer to his true talent level and that he just ran hot in his first two years, but the likelier story, IMO, is that he’s a fine low-end 1B when healthy and crap when not. Maybe he shouldn’t be on a MLB roster right now, or even taking ABs at all if it’s leading to bad habits, but if I were the GM, I’d be fairly hopeful that he’d be a legit MLB starter coming out of the gate in 2013.

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    • FieryFurnaces says:

      This is an excellent argument why Seattle should move him. they have plenty of other bats to play at first.

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      • Calvin says:

        OTOH, it’s not like they’re going to win now, or next year, so unless somebody’s actually going to overpay at his low production point, it’s probably worth hanging on to him to see what he is when healthy again. AAA or DL I can understand, removing from the organization, not so much.

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  16. WAR Invitational says:

    Smoak is hardly isolated, most of the other hyped 1B prospects in baseball haven’t put up average numbers when given the opportunity. Rizzo? Belt? Alonso? Freeman’s been OK and Goldschmidt is legit, but for prospects 1B has now joined SS and 2B as one of the weakest positions in MLB.

    Safeco, Petco and Pacific Bell are poor training grounds for young hitters, ideally we should see hitters build confidence in non-contending small AL parks then get traded to these death fields once they’ve established some production. But we should really be looking into why players can put up monster numbers in the minors but be next to useless in the majors.

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    • Alexandra says:

      It hasn’t been called Pacific Bell Park since 2003….

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      • Hunter fan says:

        So what, probably an old dude who forgets from time to time. My mom still occasionally refers to CBP as Connie Mack and I don’t feel the need to obsessively correct her. We all know what she’s talking about.

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    • Bob Loblaw says:

      Smoak has 1200+ PA. Rizzo,

      Rizzo, Belt, & Alonso don’t have 1000 COMBINED!

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  17. Steve Sheets says:

    Ackley should go before anyone! He is a waste of space. I don’t understand why Eric leaves him in the batting lineup!!

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