SEATTLE -- Without question, Justin Smoak presents a large quandary for the Mariners heading into the offseason.
The Mariners desperately need Smoak -- or someone at first base -- to play the way Smoak did the last month of the season. But can they go into 2013 believing once again that the big switch-hitter finally flipped the switch to "on" with a change in his swing?
Or do they need to bring in someone to challenge or replace the youngster they'd counted on to be a key middle-of-the-order presence last year after a similar September surge in 2011?
Smoak, 25, can't worry about the Mariners plans, obviously. His only concern this offseason revolves around getting stronger and continuing the hitting program that sparked a dramatic turnabout when he batted .394 (26-for-66) with five home runs over his final 18 games to salvage a little of what had been a very frustrating year.
Smoak finished with 19 home runs, 51 RBIs and a .217/.290/.364 split that satisfied no one, including himself. But Smoak did conclude the season on an upbeat note and is motivated to make more changes this winter in Charleston, S.C.
"This will be different, no doubt," Smoak said. "Last offseason, I worked hard at leaning out a little bit. I had good workouts, but this offseason is going to be mainly about getting stronger. That's the key. I've got a big frame and I can get a lot stronger.
"I feel like if I do that and keep doing what I've been doing cagework-wise and hitting-wise, then the sky is the limit next year."
That is Smoak's job in the next few months, to close the gap between July and the sky. The Mariners' task will be determining how much stock to put in the big man's revival, when he finally started to erase a season that saw him hitting .189 as late as Sept. 13.
Part of the difficulty is this isn't the first time Smoak has lit it up late. In three seasons in the Majors, he's batted .327 with 11 home runs and 31 RBIs in 211 at-bats in September and October.
But from April through August, he's hit .202 with 36 home runs and 123 RBIs in 1,047 at-bats.
The reason for that troubling trend?
"I don't know," Smoak acknowledged. "I think it's just one of those things. Last year I had a good [September], but I didn't feel like I was hitting that great. This year, I just felt like I squared more balls up. Even balls I was making outs on, I felt like I squared up.
"The more consistently you square balls up, the more consistently you're going to get hits. And the more consistently you get hits, the more you're going to get those doubles and home runs. And that's really what you look for as a hitter."
The Mariners saw some significance to the late-season revival.
"I think the biggest thing with Smoak is he made physical adjustments to his swing," said general manager Jack Zduriencik. "A guy can have a good month, we've seen that before out of guys. The difference this September is he made physical adjustments that got him better balance, better position to hit. That was an important step, and he has to maintain that."
But where do they sit with regard to his future at first base?
"It's all up to Smoak," Zduriencik said. "We're going to try to make this club better and where players end up is just dependent on what we do. Right now, he probably has the upper hand. But he's not a proven commodity.
"He's played great defensively and you really like what you saw in September, but it's a long season and guys have to maintain that. Short spurts aren't everlasting. It's nice he's still young and has made these adjustments. But we'll see what happens. My eyes and ears are wide open this offseason."
Smoak is encouraged both by his late improvement and the Mariners' decision to move in the fences at Safeco. He's seemed to have seen more fly balls die at the warning track than anyone at his home park, which is part of the motivation to get stronger.
Smoak hit 15 of his 19 home runs on the road this year, and also batted .235 with a .743 OPS away from Safeco, as opposed to .198 with a .558 OPS at home. But he's hopeful the new hitting approach he began working on during a late-summer stint in Triple-A Tacoma will carry over wherever he goes.
The biggest modification was shortening his left-handed swing, a change that finally took hold when Smoak added in the final bit of advice his dad used to tell him about keeping two hands on the bat all the way through.
"I was really working on my front arm and stuff with that," Smoak said of his time in Tacoma. "I had a good three weeks down there, then when I got back up I was still doing some of that stuff, but one thing we needed to add was my top hand. My front arm was getting good, but my top hand wasn't letting my front arm do the work it should have been doing. That's when I added two hands on the bat, and bingo."
The fact that it was advice from his father, who passed away a year ago from cancer, that finally hit home obviously resonates with Smoak.
"I'd heard it before," Smoak said. "And you listen. But it was always, 'Yeah, right. That will never work. You don't know what you're talking about.'"
Can he picture his dad, looking down now and getting a kick out of his "old-school" approach finally paying off?
"Yeah," Smoak said with a laugh. "He's probably saying, 'It's about time.' He's probably saying some other words, too."