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Originally published Friday, February 17, 2012 at 8:17 PM

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Smoak still the man in middle

Last year was supposed to be the lavish unveiling of Justin Smoak, power savant and franchise cornerstone.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

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PEORIA, Ariz. — Last year was supposed to be the lavish unveiling of Justin Smoak, power savant and franchise cornerstone.

According to the master plan, Smoak would show the world why the Mariners traded Cliff Lee for him (and not Jesus Montero). Smoak would establish himself as their middle-of-the-order heart for the next decade. He would rake unabated.

Instead, reality intervened. Injuries interrupted. The coronation of Smoak was sidetracked. Truth is, last season ended with us knowing not much more than we did going in — that Smoak is a hitter of tremendous potential who still must prove he can become an elite player.

So the Smoak storyline, 2012 version, is unchanged, but the urgency has accelerated. The Mariners chose to go all-in on their kids, to bank their future on having identified the right hitters to end their crippling offensive drought. No one is more crucial to that vision than Smoak.

Few scouts have doubts that Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero will hit at an elite level, but the third thumpateer, Smoak, is still an enigma. Yet to the Mariners, he remains the centerpiece of a brighter tomorrow.

"He's going to be right in the middle of everything," manager Eric Wedge said Friday.

Last year went according to plan for the first five weeks. Smoak reached early May hitting over .300, slugging at a .573 clip. The league was starting to take notice of this emerging star. And then things started to go haywire.

In late April, Smoak's father died, casting a perfectly understandable pall on his devoted son.

"He was the guy that brought me into baseball, the guy that took me through ever since I was a little kid," Smoak said. "That was with me all year. He's with me every day. That's where it's at now."

Thrust into the cleanup role against Wedge's better instincts, Smoak said he "started to do too much" — exactly as the manager feared. Smoak might have overcome that mindset more quickly had he not hurt both thumbs, all in the span of a week in June.

"Yeah, it was bad," he said. "I get jammed and my right thumb was messed up. Then I take a bad hop off the left thumb, and it was that big around (making a wide circle gesture) and I couldn't move it. It's hard to hit when you don't have your hands."

It was a tweener injury — not quite bad enough to go on the disabled list, but plenty painful enough to disrupt his approach. For a 30-game stretch from late June to late July, Smoak hit .113 with just four extra-base hits (all doubles) in 106 at-bats.

"I still felt I could play," he said. "I knew I had one swing every time I went up to bat. I knew I wasn't going to swing three or four times. One swing is all I had."

The Mariners told the media it wasn't that bad. They were being less than forthright, trying to protect Smoak from being mercilessly jammed by opposing pitchers.

"I know you guys want to know everything, but you can't let everything out because it gives the opposition an added advantage," Wedge said. "Every now and then, you have to keep things under wraps. Yeah, he was pretty banged up. Obviously, he had everything going on from a personal standpoint with his father. But in the end, you know what, he finished strong. That tells you all you need to know, really."

Smoak's strong finish was preceded by one final indignity in mid-August — a vicious grounder that careened up and hit him in the jaw, breaking his nose.

"That doesn't help. That really puts you on the DL," he said wryly.

But Smoak returned to have a solid September (.301, three homers, 11 runs batted in) and left for South Carolina with a challenge from Wedge — get in better shape. It was the right words at the right time.

"Yeah, it got to the point last year where it finally clicked — you've got to take care of yourself if you want to play," he said. "When you're on the DL, you have a lot of time to sit back and think because you're not doing anything. That's when it finally clicked in I have to take care of my body."

A player's newfound fitness is one of the weariest clichés of spring training, but Smoak does indeed look stronger and better proportioned. He said he cut out starches and junk, focused on meats and vegetables, all the while working out two hours a day, five days a week. His weight is about 220, not much different from the 225 he ended last season. But he can tell the difference.

"I didn't lose that much, but I lost a lot of bad weight and put on some good weight," he said. "I'm feeling better. I feel stronger. ... You start noticing when your clothes start fitting different."

Amid the training, Smoak naturally caught wind of the movement by some fans to sign Prince Fielder — which would have had profound implications for Smoak. In typical low-key fashion, he said he didn't sweat it.

"I learned pretty quick, you can't go on something until something actually happens," he said. "It was one of those things, if we were to get him, I didn't think they'd want to get rid of me. You don't want to get a guy to lose a guy when you're trying to build an offense. It's over now, he is where he is and we are where we are."

Where the Mariners are is desperately trying to build a respectable offense. Smoak sees the seeds of just that.

"We got our feet wet last year, and this year, I feel we're going to catch a lot of people sleeping," he said. "We have a lot of young guys, but we have a good core group of young guys, with some veteran guys mixed in. I think if guys do what they're capable of doing, good things will happen for us."

And where Smoak is, is poised for a breakout. Again.

"I expect a lot from Justin," Wedge said. "It takes time to become the player you're ultimately going to be, but I know he's going to make a strong step in that direction this year. He's too good a player, too good a hitter. He gets it. The experience he gained last year, both good and not so good, is going to help him, going to be part of who he is. I think he's a tough kid. There's a lot inside of him that maybe people don't see."

This year, people will be watching Justin Smoak more closely than ever.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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