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Time is now for Smoak to break through

SEATTLE -- Justin Smoak knows the story. He knows this will be a big Spring Training for him. He knows the Mariners acquired Kendrys Morales, Mike Morse and Raul Ibanez to compete at first base and designated hitter.

And, yeah, he knows it's time to show he's capable of living up to the expectations both of the team and himself after a tough 2012 that ended on an up note with a red-hot final three weeks.

"I'm excited," Smoak said from his offseason home in Charleston, S.C. "We've got some guys who can hit, and that's what you want. For me, personally, I know if I just play like I should play, I've got nothing to worry about. I know for a fact, this is the most confidence I've ever felt going into a season."

Smoak, 26, hit just .217 with 19 home runs and 51 RBIs in 132 games last year. The Mariners believe the former Rangers first-round Draft pick can still be a big part of their future, but they'll need to see a solid step forward in order to entrust him with regular playing time.

"I'm not worried about anything other than just trying to get better every day and do what it takes to win a lot of ballgames," he said. "That's something not just me, but everybody feels. We want to be good, we want to make the playoffs and win a World Series. That's our goal. I know people think it's a long way away, but to be honest, it's not that far."

Smoak spent a couple of days in Seattle last week, working with new hitting coach Dave Hansen and meeting with manager Eric Wedge and the training staff. Wedge said Smoak has put on about 10 pounds of muscle and looked fit and ready.

Smoak has been working particularly hard on strengthening his legs and refining his swing and is eager to carry last year's late momentum into this spring.

He'll need to do that in order to compete on a roster suddenly bursting with corner-outfield and first-base contenders after the arrival of Morse, Ibanez, Morales and Jason Bay.

Morales is a switch-hitting first baseman, like Smoak, and those two figure to split time at a minimum if they're both on the final roster. Morse, Ibanez and Bay are outfield contenders, though Morse played first base extensively for the Nationals two years ago.

But what Smoak sees is increased firepower and competition on a club that needed the infusion.

"That's always good," he said. "When you've got protection in the lineup, it's awesome. You bring in Ibanez, he's a super veteran guy who has played for a long time. That's somebody guys like myself and Ack [Dustin Ackley] and [Kyle] Seager and these guys can ask him questions. That's something we haven't had the last couple years, honestly. That's going to be good for us.

"Morales can flat out hit. And Morse is a big boy with some pop. It's something that's going to be fun."

Smoak brings some potential power of his own, having hit .341 with five home runs, 11 RBIs and a .571 slugging percentage over his last 27 games in 2012. His key is carrying over the late-season run and showing he's ready to produce for a full year.

To that end, he's lifted weights all offseason at the Progressive Fitness gym near his home in Charleston and hit in the batting cages at The Citadel, a nearby military college.

"My biggest thing physically is to get stronger, especially with my legs and lower half and core," he said. "I've done that. Last year, I worked on leaning out and eating right, but this year I've done that and lifted more.

"I'm a first baseman, and I need to be strong. I need to be able to hit the ball in the gap and out of the park. That's something first basemen do and something I know I'm capable of doing. You also want to stay flexible in baseball and not injury prone. It's a long season and the stronger you are in the lower half, the further it's going to carry you."

Smoak worked on his hitting with Hunter Bledsoe, a former Vanderbilt standout, and said his main focus has been carrying over the swing path and approach that helped him finish so strong.

"I wanted to just stay with what I was doing, while using more of my legs," he said. "I felt my swing from both sides the last six weeks was the best it's ever felt."

Smoak is heading into a different situation this spring, no longer the only option for Wedge at first base. But if Smoak performs, if he shows he belongs in that group, the Mariners will gladly find a place for him in the lineup.

And the big man from South Carolina said he's eager to be part of that continued growth.

"Everybody is excited," he said. "We made some moves and it's going to be a different year with what we've added. If the rest of the guys come back from last year and just take that next step, it's going to be good."

Seattle Mariners, Justin Smoak