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The future is now for Smoak in Seattle

Given starting nod by Mariners, first baseman must deliver on potential @TracyRingolsby

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Ever since Justin Smoak came to Seattle from the Texas Rangers in the Cliff Lee trade back in July 2010, Smoak has been considered the Mariners' first baseman of the future.

It's time for the future to arrive.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Ever since Justin Smoak came to Seattle from the Texas Rangers in the Cliff Lee trade back in July 2010, Smoak has been considered the Mariners' first baseman of the future.

It's time for the future to arrive.

"I have told him he is my first baseman," Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. "But he still has to go out and perform."

The Mariners' front office has reaffirmed its commitment, avoiding arbitration with Smoak by agreeing to a contract earlier this month that guarantees him $2.6375 million this year with a $150,000 buyout on a $3.65 million option for 2015 that becomes guaranteed if Smoak reaches 525 plate appearances this season.

Smoak is now 27. He has three-plus seasons of big league time in Seattle. And just as the fans in the Northwest are getting a bit uneasy with the Mariners' recent struggles, the club has reached a point where it's time for Smoak to take charge at first base or ... well, the Mariners, after all, do have other options.

Looking to add right-handed run production during the offseason, they signed free agent Corey Hart, who was sidelined the entire 2013 season because of two knee operations. Seattle also traded for Logan Morrison. They are both projected to get time in the outfield and at DH, but both are more suited for first base.

Smoak gets it.

"I am not going to worry about the other guys," Smoak said. "I talked to Lloyd after the additions of Logan and Corey, and he told me I'm still a big part of things. I know what I am capable of doing. All I have to do is do it."

Sounds simple, but it is not.

Smoak has carried a can't-miss tag ever since his days at Stratford High School in Goose Creek, S.C., where he was the Carolina AAAA Player of the Year as a junior and senior. He enhanced his status in the eyes of baseball scouts during three years at the University of South Carolina, drawing comparisons as a hitter to Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira.

A first-round Draft pick (11th overall) by the Rangers in 2008, Smoak was involved in a lengthy negotiation and didn't sign until Aug. 15 that summer. That barely gave him time to play in 14 games and get 62 professional at-bats with Clinton of the Class A Midwest League that summer.

Fewer than 16 months later, on April 23, 2010, Smoak made his big league debut in Texas.

It has not, however, been an instant success story, by any means. There was that trade to Seattle. There have been brief returns to Triple-A each of the last three seasons, including a rehab assignment last year after being sidelined with a strained oblique muscle.

But there also was a growing anticipation that Smoak had finally arrived last season. By mid-August, he was hitting .273, making adjustments to the dimensions of Safeco Field and its deep outfield fences.

Then came a reminder of how cruel the game of baseball can be. Smoak hit .149 over the final six weeks. He had 19 hits and 35 strikeouts in his final 128 at-bats.

The more glaring stat was that Smoak, who is naturally right-handed, hit only .192 from the right side last season -- 68 points lower than he hit left-handed and 42 points lower than his previous career average from the right side.

For the first time, Smoak's big league status became a subject of public debate. Smoak heard it.

"I have pride at the plate," said Smoak. "I was just trying to do too much. I have to get back to basics."

That was Smoak's focus during offseason workouts. And it's his focus this spring.

Yes, Safeco is a big ballpark. No, it's not a home run heaven. Yes, Smoak is considered a big-time power threat. No, that can't be his focus.

"I have to get an approach where I use the whole field," said Smoak. "Home runs are going to come, but in our ballpark you have be a hitter first."

It's a focus Smoak had all winter, and it is carrying over to Spring Training.

With a new manager and new hitting coach, Howard Johnson, who was a run-producing switch-hitter himself in the big leagues, Smoak feels like he has a new chance to reaffirm his status as the Mariners' everyday first baseman.

"It's up to me," Smoak said.

McClendon is in agreement.

"The manager doesn't make out the lineup," McClendon said. "You go 3-for-4, hit a home run and drive in four runs, somehow your name is in the lineup the next day."

The message has been delivered. Smoak has heard it loud and clear.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

Seattle Mariners, Justin Smoak