There are fans in Seattle who would like to see the Mariners stop relying on the enigmatic play of Justin Smoak and give Mike Carp a full-time shot as the team’s starting first baseman in 2013. Carp may not seem like one of the team’s most valuable assets going into this off-season but as a trade piece he could help fill holes in the Seattle Mariners upcoming season. Seattle carried three catchers on their 25-man roster much of the 2012 season which was highly debated by baseball analysts and fans alike. Along with this oversaturation at backstop the Mariners retain a high number of first base and third base options possessing major league skill-sets; this hampers the team’s ability to harbor those low on or out of minor league options. Carp has shown that he can be a reliable major league first baseman with his glove and with his bat but without overwhelming at the plate this season and having no minor league options to fall back on his days in Seattle may be numbered. An anonymous National League scout recently said, “He’s an interesting name,” said the scout. “He’s been buried on that roster in a big ballpark, and if you take him out of there, he may break out. He’s someone you’d take a chance on.” Without Justin Smoak on the roster you take a chance with Carp going into Spring Training. Spend some time refining and conditioning his body and game but with Smoak, whom the Mariners remain seemingly committed, I see his greatest value coming as a trade chip.
Part of why Carp is valuable as a trade piece is because of his contract status. He is not eligible to begin arbitration until the 2014 season and is under team control until 2017; giving any team that owns his rights the ability to sign him long-term pre-arbitration with a strong 2013 showing. Kevin Goldstein, of Baseball Prospectus at the time, wrote of Carp in the Mets system, “Offensively, though, he's a smash hit who could get a shot at being a cheap replacement for Carlos Delgado in 2009.” Here we are four years later and much of his analysis still rings true; he certainly can smash the ball when he is healthy.
**All statistical numbers (besides MLB PAs) reflect 162-game MLB career average
It’s funny that the numbers played out this way as I selected the statistical categories before looking at individual player stats and yet while preparing for this piece I often gave thought to Carp being a Lyle Overbay type player over his Major League career. Surely a team such as the Pirates who received a .236 average from first base in 2012 or the Indians at .240 wouldn’t pass up on an Overbay type of 'all-around' contributor while Alex Dickerson and Jesus Aguilar progress; both set for 2014 potential debuts for their clubs. He posted a RC/G of 7.5 in 65 plate appearances with the Mariners in 2009 and proved his offensive worth last season posting a 4.9 average in 313 plate appearances. He would not be ‘the’ piece in an off-season deal but there are many things that make him a valuable trade piece; his defense to be included on that list. He was named the best defensive first baseman in the Florida State League by Baseball America in 2006 and in 82 games played at the position with Seattle he has a range factor per nine innings of 9.14; which is 0.39 points behind four-time Gold Glove winner Mark Teixeira at 9.53. You may be asking yourself a few questions at this point, including, “Why not give the starting first base job to Mike Carp in 2013?”, “What about Jesus Montero?” or “Why should the Mariners give Justin Smoak one more chance?” Let’s take a look.
Jesus Montero has surfaced in the Mariners blogosphere as a possibility for first base in 2013. This is in part due to a comment from Eric Wedge when asked about Montero’s ability to man the position, “Not yet, he’s still working on it,” he answered. “We are not going to put him out there until we feel he is ready for it.” He has not manned 1B since becoming a prospect within the Yankees organization in 2007 at age 17. This does not mean he hasn’t taken BP or drills at the position, which the Mariners have recently confirmed, but in a live ball scenario Montero has not played 1B. With his underwhelming performance at the plate this season it might be in the best interest of the Mariners to concentrate on his progression at the plate rather than a new fielding position.
There is a foul taste in the mouths of many Seattle Mariners fans when Smoak is mentioned. This dislike boils down to his offensive showings with the team but another major part of this sour feeling is what many Seattle fans refer to as another ‘lost trade’ in a series of poorly judged transactions from team management over the past half-decade. In case you do not remember, Seattle acquired Smoak as the key piece for Cliff Lee from the Texas Rangers in 2010; both players were acquired with additional pieces in trade. Many of the same fans that spent 2012 rejoicing over the ‘reinvention’ of Michael Saunders are the ones who come down hard on Seattle’s young first baseman. Saunders is a career .220/.283/.365 hitter with Seattle in 343 games played while in 355 games played Smoak carries a line of .223/.306/.377. The fans embraced Saunders in 2012 after hitting .149 through 59 games played in 2011; even cheering him on as the season went along. Keep in mind that Saunders is a .220 career hitter after posting a .247 batting average in 2012. So why can’t we give Justin Smoak, who is younger, his shot at re-inventing himself?
Smoak is sure-handed at first base with a RF/9 of 9.06 and like Carp is under team control until 2017. The switch-hitting first baseman was traded from an environment in Texas that has carried a ballpark factor average of 1.280 over the past three seasons into a Safeco Field environment with an average of 0.794. The offensive differences do not end there as that same Texas environment averages a park factor of 1.104 for hits and 1.137 for doubles over the same time period with Safeco coming in at 0.879 for hits and 0.788 for doubles. He was undoubtedly drafted by the Rangers and progressed through their system to hit to all the caveats entailed with hitting in Texas; making such a drastic transition to an environment such as Seattle surely has played a factor in not only his offensive shortcomings but also his approach at the plate. If you take a trip over to Baseball Reference and scroll down his player page you can see that through age 24 two of the top three similar hitters to Smoak are former Mariner Tino Martinez and Mo Vaughn, both played baseball in more offensively friendly confines, hitting .243 apiece. Vaughn went on to the win the American League MVP at age 27 while Martinez was runner up to the award at age 29. Smoak’s newly acquired shorter swing, while gripping the bat differently, in September has convinced me that he may need one more season to complete his transition to Seattle.
As a baseball fan I expect three things from my team's ideal starting first base man; the kind of agility seen from the U.S. Gymnastics team, the longevity to play a demanding position and a bat that is powerful enough to break open any game. These are all traits that Smoak brings to the table; flashing team leading power despite often carrying a swing that is viewed as full of holes and in need of an overhaul. He averages 21 home runs and 70 runs batted in over a 162 game Major League season. If his September/October (.341/.426/.580 with 5 home runs in 26 games) is any inclination of where his game could truly stay I project Smoak could hit 30+ home runs in a season with 81 games played at Safeco Field while satisfying those who call for a much higher batting line. The recently announced stadium wall dimension adjustments for 2013 certainly will be a factor for the switch-hitter as I bet many Mariner fans have a few grey hairs from his deep fly-ball outs these past three seasons. Smoak has played a total of 429 games over the past 3 seasons (143 games/season) where Carp has played 364 games (121 games/season) making three disabled listed trips in 2012 alone. Both players were recognized as a top defending first baseman in the minor leagues with Carp taking home Florida League honors in 2006 and Smoak taking home Pacific Coast League honors in 2009. While Smoak has shown an ability to pick the ball at first base he is constantly graded as ‘acceptable’ at first base; whereas he is 5th in the American League for 2012 with a 8.89 RF/G totaling 1,094 putouts in 131 games (8.35/game) which is also 5th in the AL.
The 2012 free agent market for first baseman, as it currently stands, is riddled with players who will eventually end up making big money this offseason – Pena, Reynolds, and Napoli to name a few. The market is missing a contingent of first baseman that will command league average salaries at their position while providing an opportunity for their suitors to reap above average results from a deal. Carrying two young first baseman both under team control until 2017 the Mariners would be looking more towards that average salaried first baseman in free agency if at all. As I stated earlier in this piece; I do not see Carp being the center of any trade the Mariners take a look at this off-season, seeing as they need playmakers, but his value is undeniable and understated across baseball. If Seattle is willing to move a prospect in their Top-10 along with Carp they could net a big return for the ball club and plug organizational holes moving into next season. If you think trading a Top-10 prospect is unwarranted keep in mind that when the 2013 season rolls around the Mariners will be without a postseason appearance the past 12 years. So, what position would the Mariners be most likely to fill via trade? That is a topic I tackle in my next piece, due out this coming weekend.
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