Name: Justin Smoak
Position: First Base
DOB: December 5, 1986
Acquired: 2008 Amateur Draft, 1st Round (11th overall)
Playing his first full professional season last year, first baseman Justin Smoak ascended all the way to Triple-A Oklahoma City.
That the 2008 MLB Draft's 11th overall selection moved quickly wasn't a surprise––he was regarded as perhaps the draft's most polished collegiate bat because of his excellent strike zone discipline and power from both sides of the plate.
Smoak began the year at Double-A Frisco, where he batted .328 with 10 doubles, six home runs and 39 walks [versus 35 strikeouts] in 50 games.
He earned a second-half promotion to Oklahoma City, and his numbers dipped to .244 with 11 doubles and four round-trippers in 54 games. Although the prospect wasn't consistently squaring up balls, he was still working deep into counts and drawing walks without striking out too often.
Near the end of the regular season, Smoak joined Team USA for the IBAF Baseball World Cup. The slugger was able to end on an extremely high note, batting .291 [16-for-55] with two doubles, nine home runs, and 22 RBI in just 14 games. He drew 12 walks and struck out 12 times.
Smoak enjoyed the experience, as he helped the Americans to a 14-1 record and a gold medal.
"It was awesome," said Smoak. "It was great to finish my season off doing that. I got to go there and experience things you don't experience here.
"It was big for my confidence. To come up [to OKC], I struggled early on. I caught on there at the end of the season. To go there and really get back in the swing of things was great. It's always going to be great on your confidence to do well."
The 23-year-old carried the confidence into Spring Training. Although he got off to a slow start––finishing 4-for-16 with two doubles and a home run in big league ‘A' games––Smoak was just trying to find his rhythm.
"I was just getting in the rhythm of things," he said. "I was getting in the swing of things. I had to get my timing down and stuff like that. I didn't have that great of a spring, but I got to work on those things, and I came here and I have been putting them to work. To see some results so far has been good."
Smoak's early results with the RedHawks are proof that he's putting those things to work. Over his first 10 games, the South Carolina alum is destroying PCL pitching, going 12-for-34 [.353] with four doubles, two home runs and a whopping 10 walks.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound switch-hitter says he just feels like he belongs this time around.
"I'm a little more relaxed," Smoak said. "A little more comfortable. I came up here last year, and we had an older team here. I was getting in the swing of things and more anxious than I should have been. I tried to do a little too much early on.
"You can't do that in this game. You've just got to go out and play and be yourself. That's something I have learned."
Also See: Rangers Minor League Notes (March 15, 2010)
Top Prospects, Top Tools (February 11, 2010
Rangers Minor League Mailbag (October 6, 2009)
Sizing up the corner infield prospects (September 22, 2009)
Prospect Videos: Justin Smoak takes Alexi Ogando deep
Martin Perez gets Justin Smoak to pop out
Batting and Power: With a good hit tool, an excellent eye for the strike zone and solid power, Smoak has an outstanding overall skillset at the plate. His strengths are somewhat similar to those of former Rangers first baseman Mark Teixeira, but he doesn't quite have Tex's power. A switch-hitter, Smoak may be a bit better from the left side, but he has good pop from both sides of the plate.
Despite the prospect's struggles at Triple-A Oklahoma City last season, scouts and team officials weren't at all worried. He wasn't striking out a ton––he just wasn't putting the barrel of the bat on the ball. Smoak particularly struggled against good offspeed pitches, and he wasn't seeing a lot of good fastballs after the promotion from Frisco. Because he is such a relatively polished hitter, it's easy to forget that he was playing in Triple-A in just his first full pro season.
Smoak had a rough Spring Training offensively, as his timing was off for much of camp and––like last year––he just wasn't squaring balls up. But he began to show progress in late-March, and he's currently firing on all cylinders with OKC. Not only is Smoak's timing on-point, but he looks much more comfortable at the plate.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this year and last is the slugger's pitch recognition, which has improved. Although he didn't generally chase breaking balls out of the zone last summer, he was still fooled on offspeed pitches in the zone, often getting caught out in front. Smoak is staying back on those balls now, leading to increased walks and a much higher percentage of balls squared up. Obviously, that will help his numbers across the board.
Ten games is a small sample size statistically, but Smoak is on-point mechanically to start this season, and he appears close to big league ready. The early-season stats are legit––he has made the improvements necessary to take the next step.
Base Running and Speed: Natural speed is Smoak's only tool that isn't at least a tick above-average. He grades out as about a 30 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale, but he isn't completely unathletic, as he moves his feet well defensively. However, as a base runner, Smoak isn't going to be much of an asset to a team. His power allows him to run into extra-base hits––not his speed. On the plus side, Smoak knows his limitations and rarely makes mistakes on the basepaths. He has yet to attempt a stolen base in 130 professional games.
Defense: An above-average defender overall at first base, Smoak is excellent with picking throws out of the dirt and he moves around well with smooth footwork. He may not be as athletic as Chris Davis is over there––he won't stretch quite as well and his range may be a tick below––but Smoak is polished around the bag and he should only improve. At the end of the day, Smoak probably doesn't profile as a Gold Glove-caliber player at first base, but he is very solid and definitely good enough to stick at the position for years to come.
Projection: Smoak doesn't really have a glaring weakness in his game aside from his below-average speed. The bottom line is that Smoak is a switch-hitting first baseman with a good hit tool, solid power, excellent plate discipline, and a decent glove. The all-around combination should allow him to stay in the big leagues for a long time. The South Carolina native could prove valuable in a free-swinging Rangers lineup that doesn't draw many walks. Smoak should be a steady, count-working .280-.300 hitter with 20-30 home runs plenty of walks when he develops.
2010 Outlook: Already off to a fast start in Triple-A, Smoak looks much more comfortable at the plate than he did in last summer's stint with the RedHawks. As first basemen Chris Davis and Ryan Garko continue to struggle in the big leagues [combined 8-for-44 with three walks and 14 strikeouts], Smoak's Major League debut appears to be inching closer. If Smoak isn't ready for the show right now, he should be soon. Regardless of what happens, the 23-year-old will almost certainly see at least some big league action this year, and he could be the club's starting first baseman before the end of the summer.
|2009||AZL Rangers (RK)||.667||6||0||2||5||3||0||1||1||.714||2.000|
|Oklahoma City (AAA)||.244||197||11||4||23||25||0||35||45||.363||.360|
|2010||Oklahoma City (AAA)||.353||34||4||2||5||8||0||10||4||.500||.647|