Minor league report: He's Smoak-in'!
Bernie Pleskoff is a former pro scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. He is a "graduate" of the Major League Scouting Bureau's Scout School in Phoenix, Arizona. Prior to getting into baseball, Bernie served as Dean of Campus Life at Loyola University of Chicago for 27 years. He's married and lives with his wife Lynn in Cave Creek, Arizona. He'll share his weekly thoughts on prospects with RotoWire from a scouting perspective.
Smoak Signals Best is Yet to Come
Justin Smoak's been compared to Mark Teixeira. Why not? They both hit for average and power, both are switch-hitters and both play above average defense. Smoak is an inch taller than Teixeira, at 6-foot-4, but they both weigh in the neighborhood of 220 pounds. Even being mentioned in the same sentence with Teixeira means that Smoak's a top, top prospect.
Smoak began hitting for average and power in high school in South Carolina and hasn't stopped hitting since. He's hit in high school, college, the Arizona Fall League and now in the minor leagues.
If his high school days were good, then his collegiate days were outstanding, as Smoak was an impact first baseman for the Gamecocks of South Carolina. He holds the school's home run record, at 62, following three outstanding seasons in which he averaged .334, with an OPS of 1.107.
He began his professional career hitting over .300 for Low-A Clinton in 14 games. After the season he went to the Arizona Fall League where he hit a robust .353 with two home runs in 16 games while playing for Surprise. He showed plate discipline and excellent hitting instincts as he accepted 10 bases on balls and struck out only 11 times. It was his sweet swing and excellent hitting mechanics that reminded scouts of Teixeira during games at the Fall League.
Smoak actually fell to Texas as the 11th pick in the first round of the 2008 first-year player draft. Some thought Baltimore would select him with their pick (fourth overall), but they elected to go with left-handed pitcher Brian Matusz instead. It looks like the draft worked out very well for both clubs.
Justin got off to a very good start in the minors. This season, he played 50 games for Double-A Frisco and hit .328 with six home runs and 29 runs batted in. An oblique injury sidelined him and cost him playing time in June, but he's healthy now. Over the July 4th weekend, he was promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City where he played both games of a holiday doubleheader and got one hit in five official trips to the plate.
Rangers first baseman Chris Davis was optioned to Oklahoma City over the same weekend. Davis was hitting home runs as predicted, but his low .200 batting average wasn't deemed acceptable for a club in the midst of a pennant race. So, now it would appear that Smoak and Davis will alternate between first base and designated hitter at Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Given the presence of Hank Blalock on the major league roster, it's possible that Smoak will remain in Oklahoma until the September roster expansion period. Getting used to better quality pitching and continuing to refine that wrist-generated stroke will be invaluable as he moves along in his career.
Smoak has three very good to outstanding skills. He can hit for average, hit for power and can play good defense with agility and footwork that assist his game. He has an average throwing arm that's suitable to play first. He has a rather large trunk too, and that weight does tend to slow him down a bit. Overall, his speed can be deemed as average to a tad below. It isn't his speed that'll carry his career. Rather, his fluid, smooth passes through the ball (with a slight uppercut swing) and his patience at the plate dictate the foundation of very good hitting mechanics. He knows the strike zone and doesn't get fooled by too many pitches. Like all young hitters, he'll have to progress by hitting higher quality pitching at every level of professional baseball. He's more than capable of making adjustments to good pitching. Because he's a switch-hitter, Smoak should see a great number of at-bats in the minor leagues, a fact that'll accelerate his overall development. Impressive to this observer is Smoak's lack of "reaching" and "flailing" for the ball that is seen often in young, powerful hitters. Rather, his stroke is mechanically sound and measured - he just doesn't over-swing or grasp at pitches.
The presence of Blalock, Davis and Smoak provide the Rangers some options at first base. Jarrod Saltalamacchia's also capable of playing first, but most people consider him to be a catcher first and a first baseman upon occasion. Those four players give the Rangers the luxury of trading for pitching, the one position they may wish to strengthen for the future. Of the four noted above, because of his ability to hit for average and power as well as play stellar defense, Smoak probably has the greatest upside and potential for success at first base in the hitting friendly Texas ballpark. One factor to consider with Smoak, however, will be the impact of the heat and humidity on his overall hitting mechanics and strength. He's certainly faced humidity in South Carolina, but not for as long a period over so many games. That's the factor that brings slight hesitation to this scout anointing him as the next great hitter to enter the big league scene. He certainly has the tools. And he's sending signals that along with the hard hitting Josh Hamilton, powerful Nelson Cruz and hitting machine Michael Young, the Rangers will continue making progress as an offensive juggernaut. Smoak's a high quality power-hitting keeper.
Neftali Feliz - Also property of the Rangers, the right-hander came in the Teixeira trade. He's extremely promising with a good arm and above average fastball. His stuff makes him an elite prospect and one the Rangers can build upon. Feliz has recently been moved from the rotation to the back end of the bullpen at Oklahoma City. That's an important move to watch carefully.
Beau Jones - The left-handed Rangers prospect was the last player named in the trade to Atlanta for Teixeira. Jones is only 22 years old and still has great promise. He scuffled at Double-A Frisco, posting a 2-4 record and a 5.88 ERA. He had control issues and was sent to High-A Bakersfield where he's working out of the bullpen.
Julio Borbon - The Rangers speedy outfielder hit .298 with 19 stolen bases at Triple-A Oklahoma City before being called to the major league club to play center field. Borbon can be used as a spare part outfielder and pinch hitter/pinch runner for the big league club. Brandon Boggs was in that role for a few games, but he's been sent down to Triple-A in the shuffle of Rangers outfield parts. Borbon's also since been sent down, but he'll return later this season.
Keep your eye on ... Leyson Septimo, a 23-year-old left-handed reliever for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He'll be in the Futures Game on July 12 (part of All-Star week). Septimo has increased his profile with effective pitching as a closer for High-A Visalia. Relief pitching is a need for the Diamondbacks and Septimo may now be on the fast track.
Article first appeared 7/9/09