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Inbox: Has Smoak earned starting job at first base?

Beat reporter Greg Johns answers Mariners fans' questions

Has Justin Smoak played well enough to deserve the role of starting first baseman going into next year? Or is time for the Mariners to look elsewhere?
-- Frank B., Bellingham, Wash.

While Smoak hasn't put up big power numbers this year, he's made a strong step forward in establishing himself as a quality first baseman in the Majors. The 26-year-old leads the team in on-base percentage at .357, is third in batting average (.263), and fourth in slugging percentage (.433) and home runs (14).

Smoak's on-base percentage is a huge jump from the .304 career clip he entered the season with, and it is the fourth best among the American League's 15 starting first basemen. His slugging percentage is still low for a first baseman (12th in the AL), but it is again a solid improvement from his career average of .382 coming into the season. And Smoak's OPS of .790 is fifth among AL first basemen, ahead of Prince Fielder and nine other AL starters.

The Mariners were contenders for free agents Nick Swisher and Mike Napoli last winter to replace Smoak. But he has a higher OPS than both those players, and his 14 home runs are one behind their 15 each, even though both have considerably more at-bats than Smoak, who missed three weeks on the disabled list.

Smoak's issue entering this season was that he'd only produced in short spurts, mostly in Septembers, but he's now hit .275 in 131 games over the past calendar year. The major thing lacking is RBI production, and he definitely needs to produce better with runners in scoring position, but given Smoak's contract -- he's making $514,000 this year and is under team control for three more years -- his excellent defense and improving offense, first base no longer feels like the glaring issue it was before the season.

What is the primary role of a bench coach? The Mariners have had bench coaches take over the manager's job when the position was vacant for whatever reason. They're knowledgeable of the game, obviously, but when they serve as the bench coach, it doesn't seem like they do much.
-- Tom K., Portland, Ore.

Bench coaches are the manager's right-hand man, serving as a sounding board for decisions, someone who helps think ahead during games, and a second pair of eyes and ears in the dugout. They are the equivalent of a top assistant coach in basketball or other sports. Seattle bench coach Robby Thompson took over the team as acting manager in the past month with Eric Wedge sidelined by a stroke.

With Wedge set to return Friday, when the club opens a homestand against the Angels, Thompson will be back to his bench-coach role. Thompson, a former All-Star second baseman with the Giants, also serves as the Mariners' infield coach, in charge of defensive duties with the infielders. If you watch a baseball team's pregame work, you'll see all the coaches either throwing batting practice or hitting to fielders. It's a hands-on job, and Thompson is constantly in the middle of it with his fungo bat, working with the fielders.

Do you think the Mariners are using too many rookies? I keep thinking they should pair a veteran with a rookie, like Nick Franklin at second with Brendan Ryan at short, or Brad Miller at short with Dustin Ackley at second. And does Kyle Seager need a backup third baseman to get an occasional day off?
-- Janae P., Keizer, Ore.

It is asking a lot to have two rookies in the middle-infield spots, though both Franklin and Miller provided a spark upon their arrivals. I still feel the Mariners are better defensively when Ryan is at short, with either Franklin or Miller at second, and I'm sure some of the starting pitchers would prefer that lineup, as well, when they're on the mound. But I see the benefit of throwing both youngsters into the fire as the team moves forward. I'm not a fan of bouncing Ackley back and forth between the outfield and second base, as it's not an easy task transitioning to the outfield midseason, and he needs some stability.

As for Seager's situation, Miller can play third if needed. Seager has played the most games of any Mariner this year (124 of their first 126), but he's young and strong and doesn't seem to be struggling at all with the workload. Remember, Cal Ripken Jr., didn't miss a day for 17 years when he played in 2,632 consecutive games. Seager clearly is a guy Seattle wants in the middle of its lineup every day, if possible.

How did Jesus Montero turn into such a bust so rapidly? How did the Yankees and Mariners scouts not notice his glaring inability to play defense and run?
-- Peter D., Phoenix, Ariz.

It's a little early to write Montero off. He certainly had a disappointing year, but at 23, he has plenty of time to turn into a quality player. Edgar Martinez didn't even get to the big leagues until he was 24. Raul Ibanez reached the Majors at 24 and wasn't more than a part-time player until 29. Montero already has 182 big league games under his belt at 23. His story is not yet finished.

That said, Montero has a lot of work ahead. First, he needs to put his suspension behind him after being implicated in the Biogenesis investigation. Montero needs to continue transitioning to first base, or establish himself as a good enough hitter to be a full-time DH. The Yankees and Mariners -- and most everyone -- knew there were questions about his catching ability and speed. But Montero was regarded as one of the best pure right-handed-hitting prospects in baseball coming up, and that's where his future will lie. If Montero can be an impact hitter in the Majors -- and he did have 15 homers and 62 RBIs in 135 games last year as a 22-year-old -- he'll find a role.

Why isn't Lou Piniella in the Mariners Hall of Fame?
-- Marc H., Ellensburg, Wash.

The Mariners don't consider anyone for their Hall of Fame until they're at least two years removed from Major League duty. Piniella didn't retire from managing the Cubs until after the 2010 season, so this would have been his first year for consideration. Ken Griffey Jr., also was eligible for the first time this year. While it's possible to induct more than one person in the same year, Junior deserved to have center stage to himself, just as Piniella will deserve to be the main focus when his time comes. And I'm pretty certain Lou's time isn't far off, as he's the most successful manager in franchise history.

Other than Kendrys Morales, do you foresee the Mariners offering extensions or exercising options on any contracts expiring this offseason?
-- Justin D., Santa Barbara, Calif.

Morales definitely seems the primary target among the current players as he hits free agency, as he's proven to be a productive heart-of-the-order bat and a well-liked veteran in the clubhouse. The club has a $7.5 million option to re-sign outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, and pitchers Joe Saunders and Aaron Harang both have mutual options available if both the club and player want to re-up. Saunders is the most likely of that trio for Seattle to pursue, though much will depend on the market for other veteran free agents.

Michael Morse, Ibanez, Endy Chavez, Oliver Perez, Ryan, Humberto Quintero and Henry Blanco are the other Mariners veterans who will hit free agency at season's end.

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.

Seattle Mariners, Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Jesus Montero, Kendrys Morales, Brendan Ryan, Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak