BY John Hickey 04:54PM 02/25/2011

Smoak’s days of being a surprise about over

The prime acquisition of the Cliff Lee trade could be a home run threat for the Mariners before too much longer.

Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak was the key to the Cliff Lee trade last year and is expected to be a force in the middle of the Mariners' lineup this year. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

PEORIA, AZ – At this time last year, Justin Smoak was working out about 10 miles down the road in the Texas Rangers’ spring training camp in Surprise.

And there were not going to be any surprises in his Surprise sojourn. He was coming off his first full year in the Texas organization, he’d only played 54 games at Triple-A and the Rangers’ offense seemed set.

So in the first week of March, he was reassigned to the club’s minor league organization and he prepared for a full season at Triple-A.

Then the surprises started happening, and they’ve never really stopped. Three weeks into the season, the Rangers found themselves in need of a left-hander with power who could play first base. On April 23, Smoak, a switch-hitter with most of his power from the left side, was called up.

He struggled a bit, but he was basically a regular in the lineup of a team in first place in the American League West. He played 70 games for the Rangers, hit .209 and hit eight homers in 235 at-bats.

Just when it seemed the April surprise might lead to a date in the postseason, fate jumped up and smacked Smoak again on July 9. The Rangers sent him and three Texas minor leaguers – pitchers Josh Lueke and Blake Beavan and infielder Matt Lawson — to Seattle with the Mariners surrendering pitchers Cliff Lee and Mark Lowe in return.

One day later, after having been introduced in Seattle as the power source the Mariners had been lacking, Smoak was in the Mariners’ starting lineup. In his first 10 days, he hit .296, drilled a couple of homers and seemed to be fitting in. Then the wheels came off. The next 10 days saw him go 2-for-36 (.056), and by the end of the month, he was back in the minor leagues.

Talk about mood swings. In a different persona, Smoak could have been Jekyll and Hyde. But the yo-yo of the 2010 season doesn’t seem to have permanently impacted Smoak, who is in Peoria this time around as the de facto Mariner first baseman, although Smoak is the first to admit that he doesn’t see it that way.

“There are a lot of guys in camp who can play,’’ Smoak said Thursday. “I don’t know what will happen. But I know I have to prove myself here. I have to go out and fight for a job or I won’t have one.’’

It’s a good attitude, to be sure, but the reality is that the Mariners need Smoak as much as he needs them. The club needs for Smoak to have some success so the trade of former Cy Young Award winner Lee won’t down as another in a series snafus in Trade Central.

He’s a former No. 1 draft pick (11th choice overall in 2008) of the Rangers with a big home run swing. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt about his power, but there is some question whether he has sufficient bat speed to successfully hit for a significant average. And there is no telling yet how good he will (or won’t) be at first base.

Those first 20 days in a Seattle uniform were tough on Smoak, as indeed they likely would have been on anyone who’d just been traded for one of the best pitchers in the league.

“The whole season was kind of a shock in some ways,’’ Smoak said. “I wasn’t expecting a lot of what happened, from getting to the big leagues so quickly to being traded when I was. It wasn’t as good a year as I wanted.

“At the same time, I learned a lot about my body and about what it is going to take to play up here. I’d never played more than about 100 games in a season before being around for 162 last year. I wasn’t hurt, but I did get tired. I think my work this winter should make me more ready to play 162.’’

NOTES: Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, who went back to Seattle Wednesday night for medical tests, should be back on the field Saturday. Seattle should get the results of most of the testing done on Gutierrez in an effort to isolate the problem that has led to him having continued stomach troubles. … The Mariners’ annual intrasquad game went to Team Ichiro Suzuki over Team Jack Wilson, 3-1. Ichiro had a couple of singles while Luis Rodriguez and Miguel Olivo had RBI doubles. … Although manager Eric Wedge said he wouldn’t be putting any plays on, the Mariners ran on their own, which might be a good recipe for the season. There were five steals, including two by left fielder Michael Saunders, two by the other left fielder, Milton Bradley, and a steal of third by catcher Olivo with a head-first slide. Wedge said wanted his team to be aggressive, and he had no problem with Olivo going head-first. “I don’t want to see them going head-first at first base or at home plate,’’ Wedge said. “You see some really nasty injuries that way. But on the bases, it’s OK.’’ … Reliever Dan Cortes was the only one of the 10 pitchers who didn’t get in a full inning. He reached his pitch limit (25) before getting there. … Cortes and Josh Lueke, two young pitchers trying to impress enough to make the opening day roster, had the most trouble Friday.

John Hickey is a Senior MLB Writer for AOL FanHouse (

Twitter: @JHickey3


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