By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — Let there be no doubt, if it ever existed, Justin Smoak is the Seattle Mariners’ first baseman.
That confirmation came Monday morning before the club embarked on its second split-squad, day/night doubleheader in three days. Manager Lloyd McClendon sat in his office and ticked off the few certainties in his roster.
“The No. 3 hitter, Cano,” McClendon said in his slow, steady cadence. “The No. 1 starter, Felix. Our third baseman is Seager. My catcher is Zunino, and my first baseman is Smoak.”
Go ahead and process that for yourself: Robinson Cano, and Felix Hernandez? Of course. Kyle Seager and Mike Zunino? Check. And Justin Smoak … wait. Justin Smoak?
“I think he’s doing a fine job,” McClendon said. “I said this winter that Smoak was my first baseman. Will other guys play first? Yeah. But Smoak is my first baseman.”
The Mariners seemed to cloud that issue throughout the off-season and into spring training by signing Corey Hart, acquiring Logan Morrison in a trade and continuing their search for another impact right-handed bat.
Credit Smoak with this, though; he never seemed to doubt it. After avoiding arbitration last month by reaching agreement on a one-year deal, he marked the occasion by declaring he believed first base “to be “my job to lose.”
It seemed a bold claim by a switch-hitter who, at 27 and through four years, has yet to reach the potential attached to the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft. He batted .238 last season with only 50 RBI despite 20 homers. Then again, maybe not.
“I had a couple of talks with (McClendon) over the winter,” Smoak said. “I knew if I came out here and did what I’m capable of doing, and work hard, I’d have no worries.”
Not even when the club added Hart and Morrison?
“Last year, they brought in (Mike) Morse and (Kendrys) Morales,” Smoak countered. “It’s almost the same thing. So, no, no worries. … I know what I’m capable of doing. That’s why I said I feel I have nothing to worry about.”
McClendon stressed the need for a new approach at the plate.
“We’re just trying to get him to be a good hitter, not a power hitter,” said McClendon, who spent the previous seven years as the hitting coach in Detroit.
“For me, Smoak is a guy who should hit 40-45 doubles and 20-25 home runs. Not the other way around. He can still be productive (by doing that). We’ve tried (in the past) to put the cart before the horse.”
Spring numbers show little at this point, although Smoak is 7-for-21 (including three doubles), after going 1-for-2 with a double in Monday afternoon’s 8-2 loss to Kansas City at Peoria Stadium.
What or how much that means is an open question. Smoak battered Cactus League pitching a year ago in finishing with a .407 average over 19 games with eight doubles and five homers in 59 at-bats.
“I feel I’ve got a different mentality this year at the plate than I’ve had in the past,” he said. “For me, last year, right-handed was (disappointing and) kind of out there.
“This year, I’m just trying not to pull the ball. I’m just trying to react to balls that are inside. So far in camp, it’s been all right.”
McClendon added: “His BP is with a purpose now. He knows when he takes a bad swing in BP and when he takes a good swing. … You can see positive results.”
When McClendon cites Smoak as a candidate to lead the league in doubles, it is not a goal so much as a mind-set. Smoak had just 19 doubles last season and has never finished with more than 24.
“If that happens,” Smoak said, “it would be awesome. But I’m just trying not to do too much. Really, that’s the key. I think that’s his whole point. You can’t go up there trying to hit home runs. Just hit it where it’s pitched.
“Take what’s given to you and go from there. Take your walks when they don’t give you too much to hit, and when you get a good pitch to hit, don’t miss it. That’s the key to the game. That’s what every guy tries to do.”
Every guy also wants to play regularly. On the Mariners, three weeks prior to the season opener, those down to do so comprise a short list. But Smoak is on it. If there was ever a doubt.
Cano returns to lineup
Second baseman Robinson Cano returned to the lineup against the Royals after missing four days because of an infection in his mouth that required a root canal.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that he delivered hard-hit singles in each of his three at-bats. Cano spent part of his time at home hitting black beans with a broomstick.
“I have to keep my eyes on the beans because they’re so little,” he explained. “You have to follow them all the way. That’s what you want in the game. You want to follow the pitch all the way.”