Hard-working Smoak to find stroke in Minors

Hard-working Smoak to find stroke in Minors

SEATTLE -- Russell Branyan sat next to first baseman Justin Smoak in the visiting dugout at U.S. Cellular Field during the Mariners' recent road trip, turned his head toward the rookie and said, "You have a lot of potential, kid."

"Thanks," Smoak replied.

"But 'having potential' means you aren't worth a damn right now," Branyan joked.

They laughed.

It has been more than three weeks since the Mariners made Smoak their centerpiece in a trade that sent left-hander Cliff Lee to the Rangers, and except for the 5-for-7, two-homer binge he had in the second and third games of a four-game series against the Angels, the outs have far outnumbered the hits for the switch-hitter.

As a result, when the Mariners open a three-game series with the Rangers on Tuesday night at Safeco Field, Smoak will be with Triple-A Tacoma trying to find the stroke that made him the 11th overall selection in the First-Year Player Draft two years ago.

More seasoning is necessary.

"He's right in a lot of ways, and it's good hearing it from a guy like that," said Smoak of Branyan's off-the-wall comment. "I have a lot to learn in this game."

The schooling has returned to the Minors as Smoak was sent to Tacoma on Saturday to work on the swing that he developed as a kid growing up in Goose Creek, S.C.

The stroke was picture-perfect from both sides of the plate and his reputation as a future Major League hitter increased one at-bat at a time.

A four-year starter in high school, Smoak was selected as the Class 4-A Player of the year in 2004 and '05, led his team to the state championship as a senior and was named co-Mr. Baseball for the state.

He was a three-year starter at the University of South Carolina, starting all 194 games at first base, and established school records in home runs (62), RBIs (207), walks (151) and total bases (485).

"The first time I saw Justin Smoak was last year in Cary, N.C., with the [USA] World Cup team," Mariners director of professional scouting Carmen Fusco said. "He put on an absolute clinic with the bat. He has all the intangibles of a good hitter. He looks like a hitter, he acts like a hitter. He does so many things well. This kid is just not going to not hit."

The Mariners believe the Minor League stint will restore Smoak's confidence, which was at rock bottom when he left the team in Minneapolis on Saturday. The harder he tried, the more outs he made.

"You want to show everybody what you are capable of doing," Smoak said, "and sometimes I feel I get caught up in that and end up trying to do too much instead of going out there, playing the game and having fun."

Fun, he says, comes with winning games.

The Mariners were 5-13 immediately after the Lee trade, falling deeper into the AL West cellar and Smoak feels partly responsible. He is, after all, a player the Mariners believe will become a middle-of-the-lineup run producer and one of the future faces of the organization.

"I probably never have worked harder than I have this year," Smoak said. "You would think I'd be doing a lot better than what I am. I give myself credit for that, but maybe I've overdone it a little bit."

"When it's all said and done, he has a chance to be a major force for this franchise for years to come. He's a big, strong kid with power from both sides of the plate."
-- Batting coach Alonzo Powell

Smoak, who batted .159 with two home runs and five RBIs in 63 at-bats with the Mariners, realizes the only way to get better is to keep working hard. Therefore, he works, looks and listens.

"He has come to me for advice and I tell him, 'Don't ever stop working hard,'" Branyan said. "There is no such thing as a quick fix in this game. I encourage him to work hard and work on the right things. He's doing all that."

Manager Don Wakamatsu has tried to put Smoak's frustration in perspective.

"We talk about other players that have gone through it," Wakamatsu said. "I look at certain guys, like Robin Ventura from my time. He hit .143 for half a season, hits .300 in the second half, and ends up being a solid Major League hitter for a pretty long time. Those are the kinds of discussions we have with him."

The run-challenged Mariners believe Smoak eventually will become a fixture in the middle of their lineup and sending him back to the Minor Leagues was for his own good.

"Early on, he was amped up and wanted to show he is worth who he got traded for," batting coach Alonzo Powell said. "When it's all said and done, he has a chance to be a major force for this franchise for years to come. He's a big, strong kid with power from both sides of the plate. He's young and doesn't have much [professional] experience. All he needs is time.

"He's a hard worker and a smart, intelligent kid. I think he has a chance to be really good."

But that, obviously, will take time.

"He just needs to get relaxed at the plate and start looking for a pitch he can hit," Powell said.

Smoak's first stint with the Mariners took him out of his game. After coaxing 39 walks from opposing pitchers while he was with the Rangers, he had only one free pass with Seattle.

"He has proven that he can be disciplined at the plate," Powell said. "I'm sure that getting traded was a shock to him, but it's a great opportunity for him."

Smoak said it took awhile to get past the trade. His friends were in the Rangers organization and the team was winning regularly.

"The biggest challenge after the trade is getting used to your new surroundings and teammates," Smoak said. "It's difficult when you know a certain group of guys, they are playing well. You are on top of the world.

"Then you get traded and it takes your breath away."

The shortness of breath has lasted much longer than he expected. But thanks to talks with his dad and his fiancé, who will become Mrs. Kristin Smoak on Nov. 6, the transition has been easier.

"I will start hitting the way I know I can," he said. "I feel good one week and bad the next two weeks. All I have to do is find something that works and stick with it.

"I will find it and the sooner the better."

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.